Before Senator Cory Booker had taken up politics, he went to law school and dedicated much of his time to civil rights and helping those who had the fewest resources. Throughout law school he had only a vague idea of what he wanted to do, and focused on helping people who did not have the means to help themselves. As every young person going through college, he was bombarded with questions about what his next steps would be and what his plan looked like. Booker did not have a clear path toward a large law firm, the way many of his colleagues did, since he was instead motivated by social issues and injustice in the communities around his hometown in New Jersey. Questions about plans and the future haunted Booker, as they have so many young people, until one day, his mother posed a question that changed his narrative.
In a conversation with his mother she referred back to biblical teachings and switched Booker’s thoughts of fear into perspectives of untold possibility. The question posed was not what would he do after receiving his degree but rather, “ask yourself what would you do if you could not fail? If you knew for sure you would be successful, what would you do?”
Booker writes about his reaction to his mother’s question saying, “It was a question that began to keep me up at night—not with anxiety but with energized thought. The question awakened my imagination again; it ignited dreams. What would I do if I could not fail?”
The question posed by Booker’s mom is an excellent shift in the way we think about the challenges and hurdles ahead of us. It is easy to get sucked into a space where we can only seem to focus on the negative possibilities of failure rather than the various forms of success that we may find along our journey. We often view failure as if it is a final end and a defining characteristic of our life, but in reality failure is just one of many experiences that we have throughout our lifetime, and we should not let it hold us from our dreams and pursuits.
When Booker’s thought process switched he recognized the power of the thoughts he was living with. He recognized how damaging his narrative about himself had become. “The most powerful conversations we have in any day,” he wrote, “are the conversations we have with ourselves.” Focusing on the negative and the fear of not knowing what his next steps would be had limited Booker and trapped him in fear. Shifting the focus to what he could do gave him new energy and inspiration to accomplish great tasks.
Speaking more specifically about romantic relationships, Author Colin Wright in his book Some Thoughts About Relationships said, “Approaching relationships as an alliance, not just as a physical and emotional bond, gives you the excuse to put aside the irrational, vengeful, and hurtful in favor of the practical. It’s an excellent way to view someone you care about as not just a romantic partner, but a partner-in-crime. A confidante.”
Wright approaches this idea by detailing some of the negativity and hurt that can accompany the end or breakup of a romantic relationship, and offers this viewpoint to suggest that we can view our relationships through different lenses to have different perspectives and ideas about who and what we and our partner are. Wright’s argument is that by seeing our relationships in a new light, we can change the way we react when things are not going well. Seeking novel viewpoints and ideas can help us understand ourselves and our partner in new ways, and can help us have more positive reactions during challenging and negative times.
He does not argue that physical and emotional bonds are not important in relationships, but embraces those ideas and includes further connections that help to safeguard us in times of friction. If we see our partner as a true ally, then we will be less likely to cause them harm, or desire to cause them harm, during a break-up or challenging time. Thinking of our partner in new ways and thinking of our relationship to our partner in ways that help up build positive connections can give us new ways of being with them. The alliance viewpoint helps us see that we are not competing against them, but rather building who we are together and advancing for a shared cause and purpose. We can become less deceitful of the other, building trust between us both, and we can grow more fully as a couple.
Come Back Frayed is Colin Wright’s book about his time in the Philippines and his evaluations of the way that people exist within and between cultures. He focuses on his personal reactions to changing environments and life in an area of the world that sounds amazing, but can actually be quite inhospitable for long stretches of time. Addressing how we react to the places we live and the order in our lives, he writes, “We all have a different level of tolerance for unpredictability and incomprehension. Some of us have a tolerance that is almost a need: we require novelty and a regular dollop of confusion and disorientation to feel complete. We need to have our world set spinning so that we can ever so slowly bring it back to a more regular rotation on a sturdy axis.”
The quote above seems to very accurately describe Wright himself, and it resonates strongly with me despite the fact that I am incredibly routine focused. I do not do well when it comes to planning long term for vacations and I feel that I really perform well when I can build a set schedule that incorporates the things I love like, running, reading, writing, and listening to podcasts. But despite my love for routines and the benefits of performance and success that routines bring, I also recognize the human need to get away from what Tyler Cowen calls “the status quo bias”, and wright is an excellent example of how manage such a feat, and why shaking up our worlds can be so important.
Wright explains that he also thrives with strong routines, particularly in regards to health and writing practices, but by traveling consistently and exploring the world, Wright has been able to incorporate vastly different perspectives of the world into the frames from which he understands the universe. He has allowed his travel destinations and living places to be directed for him by his fans, and it was actually his fans’ suggestions that sent him to the Philippines. Along the way, Wright has been able to expand his thought processes and tolerance for change while also recognizing how routine actions, such as simple exercise and writing habits, can allow one to stay grounded, disciplined, healthy, and proficient during times of change in wildly different social and cultural environments.
My life in Reno, Nevada is not the most exciting of all time, although in a recent episode of the Ezra Klein Show, Tyler Cowen
argues that boring environments can push one to explore in greater depth the online world (for example blogging), but I enjoy the region and the routines afforded to me. Learning to incorporate Wright’s strategy for travel would help me shake up my world in a way that would give me new perspectives. Wright would argue that changing my routine and challenging the comforts and consistency it offers would push me to grow and discover new parts of myself, creating engaging and exciting experiences to help me feel more connected to myself, society, and perhaps all of humanity. From the interview I listened to I think Cowen would agree that efforts to avoid status quo bias can pay off in the long run and satisfy some part of our humanity that craves change, even if we have a small tolerance for the novelty and uncertainty it brings.
“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.
“The difference between the right and wrong perspective is everything,” Ryan Holiday writes in his book, The Obstacle is The Way. “Where the head goes, the body follows. Perception precedes action. Right action follows the right perspective.” In the two quotes above Holiday lays out his thoughts for the importance of the systems we build for looking at the world. Stepping beyond our initial view of the world and learning to adjust our perception is incredibly important in the world today. Limiting our views and entrenching ourselves in our single perspective creates a reality for us that is not shareable nor understandable beyond ourselves to those with different experiences, beliefs, and views.
Holiday’s quotes feel very timely for me given the recent election. Our country has become increasingly polarized and there seems to be a great disconnect between those living in rural and urban areas. I’m afraid not that we have different opinions, but that we are not cultivating the ability to see the world from multiple perspectives, and that we are not striving to to better understand the other half of the country that does not live the way we do. When we limit our perspective and don’t seek a greater understanding of what others believe, we cut ourselves off from a large number of people. It becomes easy to hide behind those who share our views and we fail to even talk to those who are different from us.
In his writing, Holiday approaches our ability to change our perception as a tool for adapting to life’s many challenges. We can become more productive by thinking about the work we do from a different angle, and we can learn to better appreciate any given situation when we can focus on the present moment. For Holiday there are two parts of perception that shape the way we experience the world. We have the context of our lives that connects our view with the larger world, and we have our individual framing which is our determination of the meaning of a given event. We decide what something means according to our world view, and our entrenched perspectives on the specifics determine how that thing fits in with our daily actions and individual reactions.
Expanding on the idea of perspective as discussed in our daily lives makes me think about Amanda Gefter and her quest for ultimate reality in her book that I recently read, Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn. Gefter is a science journalist and author, and she explains how she built a career for herself reporting on physics. What she and her father have spent their life focusing on as a hobby is the search for ultimate reality, the search for the truest building block of the universe that may be the foundation for all of physics. Ultimately, what she and her father found is that to the best of our understanding right now, there is no ultimate reality. Our perspective truly is everything. Where we are in the universe, how we choose to view the universe, and what we choose to look at determines the reality of the physics around us. Stepping outside the universe and taking a god’s-eye view of everything causes physics to break down, and ruptures reality. Change your frame and you lose gravity, divide atomic and subatomic particles far enough and you reach a possible eleven dimensional field of vibrations where there is no actual physical thing, accelerate yourself to the speed of light and time ceases to exist. The physics and reality of our world only seem to work from our single perspective where we view the world and assemble our own information. There is no ultimate reality that can be agreed upon by everything, and there is no gods-eye view that can help us find “truth”. If this is true in the world of physics then it can be applied to our lives, and we can begin to understand that we never have an answer to the right way of doing things, we only have our perspective and how we choose to understand the world given the framework and understandings that we have built and adopted from our slice of the universe.
Perception is a major focus throughout the book The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday. By focusing on how we see the world around us and how we choose to react to the world in which we live, Holiday explains the many ways in which we can adapt and overcome the barriers which impede us along our path. For Holiday, our perception can become either a tool that we use to expand the possibilities around us, or a roadblock preventing us from becoming the best possible version of ourselves. Holiday writes,
“We decide what we will make of each and every situation. We decide whether we’ll break or whether we’ll resist. We decide whether we’ll assent or reject. No one can force us to give up or to believe something that is untrue (such as, that a situation is absolutely hopeless or impossible to improve). Our perceptions are the thing that we’re in complete control of.”
Reacting automatically and living on autopilot is an easy way to move through life, but it is also a lifestyle that abandons self-control by giving up consciousness in regards to our perceptions. Allowing our lives to be limited by narrow views of what is possible leaves us in a position where our power to change is insignificant. Rather than allowing our mind to see obstacles in new ways, we double down on limitations, and assume that we were never meant to proceed. We accept that our world is finite, and we give control to another person or what we see on television or to forces that seem to operate above us.
Holiday encourages us to regain control over our choices and our perceptions. I don’t think his message is to simply have greater will power or determination in our lives, though that may be part of what he advocates, but ultimately he encourages more thought and expansion of the way we look at any situation. Life can pull us in many directions and our busy lives may feel like a tornado beyond our control, but through mindfulness and self-reflection, we can begin to recognize the choices we make, and we can begin to recognize how we think about and approach the situations in our life. Changing our perspective and refocusing our thoughts in ways that align with our values will allow us to be more fulfilled. Reaching this point requires the ability to shift our perspectives and to understand the power we have in deciding whether our minds with be fortified and sound, or whether our thoughts will be reactionary and at the discretion of the world around us.
There are three parts to overcoming our obstacles that Ryan Holiday lays out in his book The Obstacle is the Way. In a single short quote he gives us a quick roadmap for developing ourselves and facing our challenges.
“Overcoming obstacles is a discipline of three critical steps.
It begins with how we look at our specific problems, our attitude or approach; then the energy and creativity with which we actively break them down and turn them into opportunities; finally, the cultivation and maintenance of an inner will that allows us to handle defeat and difficulty.
It’s three interdependent, interconnected, and fluidly contingent disciplines: Perception, Action, and the Will.”
His approach breaks down the barriers that we face and looks at each part of an obstacle to help us see how we can take small steps to face what limits us. It also builds a framework for looking at our problems that can become a committed part of who we are, and a habit that we adopt for thinking about the world. The process is not intended to be a tool that we pull out when needed for a specific job, but rather a mental scaffolding built around our decision making and thought processes.
I think it is very fitting that Holiday calls this process a discipline. It requires self-awareness and self-control to stand back and methodically pick through our obstacles to find creative solutions to bridge the gap between where we are and the success we desire. Even once we have imagined a creative solution we must put forth great effort for that solution to manifest in the real world. Holiday is honest in the quote about about the challenges of applying this discipline. Each of his three steps require taking action that runs counter to the easy path away from our obstacles. Facing and using our obstacles to build new opportunity requires not just determination and strong will-power on our end, but the ability to overcome the negative voices in our head which tell us to turn away from our challenges in search of an easier rout. It requires that we change the way we think about that which limits us, and demands that we find new solutions to the problems we face.
Our new perceptions and novel solutions don’t just help us overcome any single obstacle, but they literally change who we are. The growth we find on our path results from our new ways of looking at the world, and from the practice of building greater will-power to reach our goals. The solutions we develop become a playbook for facing obstacles, and serve as proof of our accomplishments.