A Single Best Way

I was recently listening to an episode of Smart People Podcast where host Chris Stemp interviewed Jennifer Mueller to discuss creativity. One of the ideas that Mueller shared was that there is never truly a best way to do something, and that we can be creative to look beyond what has been tried in the past and find new ideas, approaches, and solutions. Her views align with thoughts from Colin Wright’s book, Come Back Frayed where he writes, “There’s no simple answer to the questions of bests, or even betters. Each and ever stand taken on this subject is loaded with context and subtext and pretext. If a firm position is taken there is also pretense, because deciding that one’s own point of view trumps anyone else’s is, well, pretentious.”

 

Wright focuses on the ways we adopt and become set in our perspectives of the world around us. When we decide that our vantage point is the only correct perspective for interpreting the world, we limit ourselves and what we see as possible. From our point of view something may be clear, but we may miss very important aspects of what is truly taking place. Our perspective will always be influenced by our experiences of both big and small life events. Anything as small as a smile from a stranger to events as large as promotions or marriage shape the background understanding we have of the world, influencing the perspectives we take. Recognizing that our experiences are unique allows us to understand ways in which others think of the world differently, and may see different realities and possibilities. The key is to avoid bunkering down in our own point of view and surrounding ourselves with people with similar views.

 

When we do make an effort to expand beyond our own point of view we allow ourselves to be creative in new ways. We expand our perspective and create new connections when we recognize that our best way may not be another person’s best way to approach a given situation. From our vantage point something may be clear, but taking a step beyond ourselves  to view the world from new perspectives will help us see that our best way is just one option. The more this skill is cultivated the more we can develop creativity in our lives to find not just the single best way to live, to work, or to eat, and we can find interesting ways in which our reality interacts with others based on each choice that we make.

Avoiding Extremes

Colin Wright is an author, podcast host, and in to some degree full time traveler writing about his experiences and the ways in which he has come to see the world through stoic principles of self-awareness and mindful consideration. In his recent book, Come Back Frayed, Wright details his experiences living in the Philippines and explains ways in which his lifestyle contribute to his being able to not just survive, but thrive in very different environments and places. One of Wright’s traits lending to a successful lifestyle of travel is his ability to avoid extremes in terms of thought, behavior, and desires. Regarding extremes he writes,

 

“Extremes are insidious because they’re incredibly valuable until they’re not. At some point on the usefulness curve, they transition, hyde-like, to harmful. Even water is deadly if you drink too much of it.
Avoiding extremes has become an integral part of my lifestyle, because I find that walking up to that line, toeing it, and then stepping back to stand on healthier, more stable ground is what allows me to work and live and enjoy the world around me without suffering the consequences of burnout, sleep-deprivation, ill-health, and fanaticism.”

 

I enjoy this passage because Wright explains the importance of remaining even and level in our actions. It is easy, tempting, and often encouraged to push toward an extreme in whatever we are doing with our lives, but in the long run the consequences of living on the extremes can be disastrous. Pursuing diets without flexibility, driving toward completing incredible amounts of work, and even participating in non-stop leisure can lead to worse outcomes than if we had been more balanced in our approach. Focusing so highly on one area may help us find incredible success, but as we push further toward the extremes, we must out of necessity, and limitations on our time and energy, give up attention for other areas of our life. Without stopping to take notice of our focus, we will find that suddenly, our laser detail on one extreme, has allowed other areas to become problematic.

 

This is the sudden change that Wright discusses in his quote above. Extremes push us to places where the supports that allow for our behavior become weakened and unable to further support our specific efforts. Because our focus is so set in one area, it also means we are oblivious to areas we have chosen to neglect, and when problems arise, we might not know where to look to find solutions.

 

Greatness and deliberate action are things to strive for, but we should recognize what we are sacrificing to reach those goals. As we drive further toward extremes in pursuit of excellence, we will notice that we must take our focus away from other areas. Being conscious of our decisions and recognizing when we are approaching extreme points will help us find a place where we can continue to seek greatness on more stable footing.

Feeling our Emotions

Ryan Holiday addresses a common misperception of stoicism in his book, The Obstacle is the Way, when he addresses ideas surrounding our emotions and how we handle our emotions. I think people often associate stoicism with a lack of emotion, and will describe people as being stoic when they respond to emotional situations like reactionless statues. I think there is merit to the idea that people who follow stoicism don’t show emotion, but I think it is often taken to the extreme in people’s mind. Not showing wild emotion swings becomes conflated with not having or feeling any emotion at all, and in Holiday’s writing the curtain is pulled back to give us a new view of how we can react to our inner feelings, and to give us new perspective on the thoughts and minds of those we call stoic in turbulent times.

Holiday writes, “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.” Holiday’s quick quote shows that stoics and people who practice stoicism are not simply stones without emotion. Rather than being voids without feelings, Holiday presents an image of someone who is self-aware and capable of managing and controlling their emotions. Stoics have practiced this ability over time, recognizing their feelings, channeling their passion in productive ways, and choosing how they will use their emotions. Often we don’t see these people as having any emotion because we do not see the visible emotional outbursts that are common on television shows and socially encouraged at sporting events.

Holiday takes the idea of feeling emotion a step further in his book. He does not simply explain that people who follow the teachings of Marcus Aurelius and other stoics feel emotions, he explains that people who practice self-awareness and recognize the ways their emotions drive their behaviors experience better outcomes in life than those who allow themselves to be driven by the impulses of their emotional states. Further, Holiday writes that stoics feel their emotions quite strongly, and that they do not ignore their emotions. He encourages his readers to explore and to feel their emotions, but he does so in a way that is constructive and provides us the opportunity to learn and grow from our current state. By using our emotions and being aware of them we can channel our energy into truly productive directions. The failure to recognize and the failure to understand our emotions leaves us in a place of no direction.  When we assume that we should not feel one way or another, and when we strive to be without emotion, we leave a valuable part of ourselves behind.

Determining Good or Bad

What makes a situation good or bad? In his book, The Obstacle is the Way, Ryan Holiday follows the stoic logic of Marcus Aurelius to explain that our perceptions and opinions are how we determine whether any given situation is good or bad. How we decide to interpret any event shapes our actions, and we can move in directions that will be either beneficial or detrimental for us and our community, but it is always our choice based on our interpretations of the world around us. Holiday writes, “In fact, if we have our wits fully about us, we can step back and remember that situations, by themselves, cannot be good or bad. This is something — a judgment — that we, as humans beings, bring to them with our perceptions.”
It is obvious that the most horrific human experiences and sufferings in our species’ history are bad situations, but when we look at the daily experiences of our lives, we rarely face any challenges or obstacles that are inherently bad. We will face points of incredible bad luck and experience stretches of good luck, but it is ultimately our decision and perception that determines what we think of our luck. A flat tire when we are already late for work could be a very bad situation, but if we can take hold of our emotions then we can recognize that the tire on our car has no direct contact with the faculties of our mind, and therefore has no direct control over our thoughts. Allowing a random situation to take hold of our mind and shape our perception is an act of abandoning what makes us human.  If instead we ask ourselves how we have truly been harmed, and if we recognize that our lives are truly never made better or worse by nearly any situation, then we can grow and adapt.
When Holiday writes of using obstacles to find our direction, he is writing about building the ability in our mind to recognize that it is our reactions to obstacles that shapes the path of our lives. Obstacles present opportunities to grow, but in the moment it is never easy or encouraging to have our path obstructed by challenges. However, self-awareness and reflection on our thoughts can help us see the best ways to move forward. When we choose not to become angry and dejected over situations, we give our minds the power to be creative and resilient. Through greater perspective we recognize that nothing truly changes our lives besides our own mindset.

The One Thing We Control

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.

Seeking Obstacles

In The Obstacle is the Way, author Ryan Holiday encourages us to run toward  the obstacles that appear in our lives instead of constantly trying to avoid obstacles and challenges. He highlights the opportunity for growth that obstacles provide, and shows us how they build new opportunities. He writes, “Obstacles are not only to be expected but embraced…because these obstacles are actually opportunities to test ourselves, to try new things, and, ultimately, to triumph.” This short quote sums up much of Holiday’s thinking surrounding the challenges in our lives and how he views the struggles we will encounter.
What I find great about this quote is Holidays acceptance of struggles and challenges as a necessary part of life. I find that I try so hard to build a life for myself where I will not face challenges and struggles, but it is a useless effort. What Holiday says is that we should expect our lives to be full of obstacles and we should not imagine a perfect future life free from adversity. I think I am stuck in a trap that has been built for people of my generation, the millennial generation, where it is easy to imagine a simple life with all of our desires available accessible, and with all our obstacles mitigated by forces beyond our control. The simple truth is that we will all experience some degree of suffering, and it is through our struggles that we will grow and become better people.
Holiday also shows the importance of building awareness and self-reflection into our life journeys. If we are not aware, then we will not see the opportunities that present themselves in the obstacles that we face. Any bit of adversity that we experience can have a positive side to it, if we understand our reactions and look for ways to use our adversity as a new fortification for the foundations upon which we rest our lives.  Without a dose of awareness, we risk crumbling in front of our challenges, unaware that it is this very challenge that could help propel us further.

A Dose of Self-Awareness

Marcus Aurelius was the emperor of Rome in the second century and in his position became one of the most powerful people on the planet.  But even in his position as emperor he was able to find ways to remain humble and to look at other men in a way that elevated them. He reminded himself of the areas where he needed to grow, and he focused on his own faults more than he looked for faults in others.  He wrote about his beliefs of self-awareness in his book Meditations, giving us an insight into his practice of self-reflection.

 

When looking at himself relative to other people Aurelius wrote, “consider that thou also doest many things wrong, and that though art a man like others; and even if thou dost abstain from certain faults, still though hast the disposition to commit them, though either through cowardice, or concern about reputation or some such mean motive, thou dost abstain from such faults.” He uses this section to explain that we can never elevate ourselves above others if we are truly practicing self-awareness and if we are able to open our minds to see the world from multiple perspectives, including the perspectives of those who we deem to be in error.

 

Aurelius is encouraging himself to recognize that he shared many of the same faults that he saw in other people, and he used this recognition to keep himself from making the mistake of placing himself on a pedestal above others. By not placing himself on a moral high ground and by not elevating himself beyond the rest of humanity, he was able to better understand the lives and decisions of those around him. He was able to recognize that he had the same desires and wishes to make decisions that he would criticize in others, and this awareness helped him to participate with others and connect with them in a deeper manner.

 

If we fail to build self-awareness into our lives then we will likely place ourselves above others and begin to look at only our successes relative to the shortcomings of others.  This places us in a world were we can never have true relationships with those around us, and instead of being able to help others, our ignorance will push them away in a firestorm of hypocritical advice giving. Aurelius’ practice of self-awareness is something we can incorporate into our own lives to help us grow, and to help those around us grow.