Pre-COVID, on the mornings when I walked from my car to the office, I passed an electronic sign showing the number of available spaces in three nearby car parks. As a simple exercise to kickstart my brain of a morning, I tried to add up the total number of spaces in my head. Not Newtonian physics I admit, but better than nothing.
I would then check the answer using the calculator on my phone because, well, I’m not really very good at maths….
What I noticed was on Monday’s and Friday’s, the number of available spaces would be 15-20% higher than Tuesday to Thursday. I have my thoughts on why, but this isn’t a post about the habits of people who work in Parramatta.
What started out as a quick little brain exercise got me thinking about how we use (or more so don’t use) data to understand why things are the way they are, and more importantly – what then to do about it.
Last weekend we had some close friends over for lunch.
Ahead of them arriving, the kids (6 and 3) and I took on a few jobs in the backyard. Pick the sticks and hard little seed pods up off the grass so we could play barefoot, clear the leaves off the trampoline, sweep the deck, check the BBQ gas bottle, the usual stuff.
In a previous post we talked about how by utilising the three fundamental Stoic principles of Perception, Action and Will, Ryan Holiday proposed to attack the elephant-sized problem of improving our relationship with the obstacles in our lives.
In the post, we only got round to discussing Perception, so I thought it was time to follow up with Action and Will.
Of the three principles, I think that Perception is the one that requires the biggest structural adjustment, and the largest investment of your personal bandwidth. I’ve noticed however, that once you re-frame how you view obstacles, the resource required to then act in response to them, and to then continually endure them appears to be much lower in comparison.
So assuming you’ve read Part 1 of this post, and started to see obstacles as opportunities, and embracing them as chances to improve, you’ll need to foster the ability to act because of them, in spite of them even.
Enter, Action and Will.
Action, hard work and perseverance pays dividends – I don’t think there’s many who’d disagree with that. What’s harder though, is to paraphrase the book and its concepts into actionable, tactical advice. As I stressed in Part 1, just buy the book and read it for yourself – it’s incredible. But that’s not exactly what book reviews and leadership lessons are about – doing all the work yourself. What you’re looking for is advice, guidance, tactics to improve, without having slog through the textbooks.
The concepts are simple, but not easy – and make no mistake, there’s a difference. Similar to the lessons Hal Moore offers, when you’re reading them in a book, they appear obvious. The difference in these concepts is that they aren’t so much reinforcing leadership lessons you may already have come across, but require a substantial shift in perspective. The effects however are immediate, and surprisingly transformative.
If I had to summarise the principle of Action into a short grab, it would be “Do anything. Now”. Just get out there and do something. Anything. There’s a power in action that trumps intent, trumps wishing, trumps day-dreaming, and separates the entrepreneurs from the “want-trepreneurs”.
I’ll admit that I often find myself falling into that second category. My bedside table is filled with notebooks of ideas not implemented, inventions not prototyped, visions not fulfilled, and ultimately, regret. Why? Because I never took that first step.
One of my most quoted quotes is “You can’t cross a chasm in two small steps”, and like many of us who are only too happy to hand it out, I’m terrible at taking my own advice. What’s stopping me? Fear I guess. Fear of rejection. Fear of failure. Fear of embarrassment if no-one buys my invention, or the new business idea fails.
I’m not going to dive down the rabbit-hole of ‘move fast and break things’, or ‘failing fast’ and a hundred other FaceGoogle-esque maxims,other than to say I think that if I took a step, made the leap that it’d probably work out OK.
Besides, even if it didn’t, Part 1 of this review would give me advice on how to re-interpret the obstacle!
“Unselfish action, now at this very moment” – Marcus Aurileus
Summary. Do the sh!t that you need to do to get things started and don’t stop moving.
Easy to say. Hard to implement.
Worth the effort though.
Will. If Perception and Action are disciplines of the mind and body, then Will is the discipline of the heart and soul.
Let’s say you’re faced with a problem, any problem. You’ve taken the advice in the earlier post and re-framed your perspective. You now see this problem as an opportunity. Tremendous. You’ve taken that first step into action. Tremendous. You fall at the first hurdle. Tremendous. There’s nothing in the manual that says you won’t end up in a feedback loop from hell going around and around and around from Perception to Action with no end in sight.
“Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield” – Tennyson, Ulyssess
When Antonio Pigafetta, the assistant to Magellan on his trip around the world, reflected on his boss’s greatest and most admirable skill, what do you think he said? Turns out it had nothing to do with sailing. The secret to his success, Pigafetta said, was Magellan’s ability to endure hunger better than the other men.
We discussed in Part 1, that re-framing your perspective of obstacles was the key to defeating them. Perhaps Magellan saw his interminable hunger as simply an opportunity to master the demands of his body? Perhaps he saw it as simply payment for the opportunity to explore the unknown. Perhaps he just had a small stomach. Who knows? What it does show is that endurance, a desire to move forward, simply not allowing obstacles to stand in your way, is not subject to the obstacles themselves, but simply the way you view them. You can choose to succumb to hunger, to complain you are on half rations, or you can remember that some people, many people, have no food at all. That you’re lucky you’ve got some mouldy bread and scraps of salted beef to nibble on.
So how does all this help those who are leaders, or who aspire to be leaders? Think back to all the bosses you’ve had (or if you’re new to the workforce, the family & friends who hold leadership roles in your life). Now picture an example where things have gone to custard. A project fails to meet a critical deadline. A sales team repeatedly doesn’t hit the monthly sales targets which is now threatening the viability of the entire company. A piece of heavy plant rolls over and traps a worker’s leg. A family member dies unexpectedly.
None of these are particularly good news items. None of these are cause for celebration.
Now then think about the people who stand out in your memory in that situation as being calm, collected and in control. What was it that separated them from the rest of the team or the family? Those who weren’t lost in the emotion of the situation, or those who didn’t run around doing ‘busy’ work without getting done what needed to get done? I’m sure if you reflect on it, these three foundational principles will have been in play – whether you (or perhaps even they) noticed it at the time or not.
Perception. Action. Will.
It’s amazing how calmness is contagious. How a cool head prevails. How this leader may not necessarily have been the ‘boss’, or eldest in the family, but whose implementation of these principles steadied the ship.
Isn’t that what you want from your leaders?
To see clearly.
To act correctly.
To endure and accept the world as it is.
What did you think of today’s post? Do the principles of Stoicism interest you – are you keen to learn more? If you’ve seen examples of non-traditional leaders stepping into the void in a crisis and steadying the ship and you’d like to share, leave a comment below or get in touch via the Contact Page.
With the recent bushfire activity here in Sydney, I thought it was timely to share some of the exemplary leadership I’ve witnessed in my time within the NSW Rural Fire Service.
In late 2017 I was on a Hazard Reduction burn, an HR. Before we go any further, can we please stop calling these back burns. Back burns are where you use fire to fight fire (which is what happened down at Holsworthy / Menai), and a hazard reduction burn is where you burn off as much of the ground fuels as you can ahead of a bush fire season.
If you follow this blog, you’ll hear me mention three people on a regular basis. Ryan Holiday, Tim Ferriss and Jocko Willink. I credit them as the majority shareholders in my recent learning investment portfolio. They themselves are prolific in their teachings, and I recommend you read and listen to them all as much as possible. Along with the resources they recommend, they form a 3-person Advisory Council that’s hard to beat. I must note that I’ve never met any of them – although I did once get a Facebook response from Jocko – but reading their books and listening to their podcasts has been as good a schooling as you’ll get anywhere, and I’m thinking of making a trip to Jocko’s Musterin 2019. Side note: Ant, I’ll be crashing at your joint so get that air bed pumped up.
Today’s post is a review of Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle is the Way. For reasons unknown, I read the first 3 chapters of the book back in early 2017, and it then sat on my shelf for almost a year. Why? It wasn’t boring or poorly written. I suspect it was because I wasn’t really ready to absorb the message it spruiked on the dust jacket and those early chapters, and I was possibly a little apprehensive, or maybe even blinded by my ego that the lessons would even apply to me.
“It’s impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows” – Epectitus
For reasons even further unknown, I picked it up again recently and simply devoured it. Perhaps I was ready for what he had to say, perhaps I needed to hear what he had to say, but regardless of the reason, it’s certainly made an impact.
The book is set out similarly to his others (Ego is the Enemy, The Daily Stoic – both are highly recommended), in that it looks to break down huge, mind-bending concepts into tasty bite-sized pieces. Similar I’m told, to the way you should eat an elephant. These tasty brain nuggets make the concepts infinitely easier to retain and even more importantly, easier to implement.
So what are these concepts, these principles?
Holiday doesn’t just look to, but succeeds in, cleverly detailing a personal operating system to help you perceive, act and persevere in the face of obstacles. I write that, but actually it’s more – it’s providing a way to entirely refocus your approach to obstacles, great and small. Redefining them in your head so that they no longer appear as obstacles, but opportunities for growth, learning and improvement.
He does this by providing a way to visualise obstacles in the same way Stoicism teaches an approach to life. Three basic principles.
Perception – See things for what they are.
Action – Do what we can.
Will – Endure and bear what we must.
Fundamentally, these principles, or maxims, are what have guided the Stoics for centuries. From the teachings of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and beyond, Stoicism provides us a framework for re-configuring our perspective on life, with the ultimate aim of a simpler life. Simpler doesn’t necessarily mean living like a pauper or foregoing pleasure, but that whichever path you choose is chosen for sound reason. Apart from the seemingly obvious benefit of this, it then ultimately provides you with more time and focus on doing what it is you need to do in this life.
I’ll be sharing a post in the coming weeks on how reading and learning, and practising Stoicism has had a huge impact on my life, but for now you might be asking “What does any of this have to do with leadership?”
I’ll be honest, it’s hard to provide a specific answer to this. If I could, it would have been be me that would have written the book.
What I can tell you is that since trying to implement the fundamentals Holiday writes of, I’ve noticed that what would have previously pi$$ed me off for hours or even days, seems to have shrunk to minutes, or not at all. Is it because I’m older, wiser (ha!), or maybe it’s having two kids who are growing up too fast? Do all these things mean I’ve mellowed with age?
Perhaps. I’m not saying I’ve reached a Zen-level calmness, far from it, but with the stresses and obligations more pronounced than ever before, you’d think this would be offset by any mellowing and I’d still be pi$$ed off. I truly believe that the combination of Stoicism and the teachings of this book have made me a better father, better leader, and a better human.
Yeah right, I hear you mutter under your breath. Check out this sucker caught up in yet another self-help cult. I understand your scepticism. I felt it myself before I started learning again. Just read the book and you’ll see what I mean.
Holiday’s fundamental principle is that the obstacle you face, whatever it might be, is unlikely to go away simply because you want it to. You stub your toe on a table. You then shout at the table, and while you’re at it, you shout at your toe. Neither of these are going to upset the table, nor you toe for that matter. You stub your toe on the table and then take a chainsaw to the table. This is also not going to upset the table. I recommend not taking a chainsaw to your toe. The table is a simple example, but illustrates the point. It is your response to an obstacle which causes the reaction, not the actual obstacle itself. More importantly, it is only your response to an external stimulus that you are able to control.
He’s mindful of not wanting to sound glib, which is difficult when you consider some of the obstacles people face every day. A sudden and unexpected death of a loved one? Hard to see how that’s a good thing, and while grieving is a natural response, Holiday’s approach is to limit the impact that that grieving has on your life, by understanding that there’s nothing you can do to change what happened, and that being paralysed by that grief serves no one. To take it to the next level, the person that’s dead doesn’t care at all.
On a lighter note, the approach can be applied to your work (and home) life almost every day. I’ve stolen from Jocko Willink a method of changing your perspective, whose standard response to members of his SEAL team when things didn’t go as planned was “Good!”
Good! – Jocko Willink (when something went wrong)
Same approach as Holiday describes, but provides a tactical method that you can implement today.
Ammunition re-supply didn’t arrive?
Good! Opportunity for us to practise hand-to-hand combat.
Our operation got cancelled? Good! Opportunity for us to run through the plan a few more times.
Now unless you’re in a combat zone, these may not seem particularly relevant, but in our normal, ‘not being shot at’, lives, the approach still works.
Got a boss that micro-manages you?
Good! Now’s your opportunity to work on methods in dealing with this type of person.
Got looked over for that promotion?
Good! More time to get better.
Good! Now there’s more time to spend with your family who you’ve ignored recently.
“If you can say the word Good! Guess what? It means you’re still alive. It means you’re still breathing. And if you’re still breathing, guess what? You’ve still got fight in you. So get up. Dust off. Reload. Recalibrate. Re-engage.
And go out on the attack.” – Jocko Willink
Your response to the obstacle is the only thing you can control. Re-visualise it and see it as an opportunity to learn, to grow, to develop, and you’ll suddenly find that everything is a lesson in leadership. Even the hard sh!t, in fact, especially the hard sh!t. It’s an uplifting revelation to have.
Obstacles in whichever form they take, are a vast majority of the time, not placed in your way deliberately, or with malice. Obstacles are life’s way of reminding you that you’re alive, and that while you think you may have mastered her, that Mother Nature still runs this show so and you’re really just a passenger. Each time you conquer an obstacle, you’ll learn something. Each time, you’ll develop strength, wisdom and perspective. Each time, a little more of the competition falls away. Until all that is left is you: the best version of you.
“Lose money?” Remember, you could have lost a friend. “Lost that job?” What if you’d lost a limb?
“Lost your house?”
You could have lost everything.
So we’ve covered off Perception and we’re already at 1,600 words. There’s enough meat on this bone to warrant more posts, so we’ll stick with just Perception today and cover off Action and Will in a few weeks.
Of all the stories in the book about Perception, the one that stuck most in my mind, and the one I’ve reflected on the most, is a story about a factory fire at Thomas Edison’s laboratory which destroyed almost all of his life’s work.
Now it’s statistically unlikely that any of us will ever reach the heady heights of Edison, but if he can approach the razing of his factory as a spectacle to behold, who told his son with childlike excitement as the fire raged, fuelled by the strange chemicals in the various buildings, “Go get your mother and all of her friends. They’ll never see a fire like this again”, and calmly state afterwards, “It’s alright. We’ve just got rid of a lot of rubbish”, we can surely re-frame having a difficult boss or poor Wi-Fi reception as an opportunity.
Side note: Edison’s factory was up and running again in weeks, at full production some 3 months later, and almost tripled its output and profit within a year.
Make no mistake. It’s hard work trying to implement the approaches outlined in the book. It’s easy to see every obstacle as another reason to rest. Another reason that explains why the other guy is succeeding when you’re not. Another reason to give up.
But that’s the exact reason why you should try. Why you must try.
The only person you should try and be better than…..
is the person you were yesterday
I promise you that you only need to do this exercise a few times to see the benefit. But I promise you will, as the effect is immediate.
The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way. – Marcus Aurileus
As I promised in my first book review, I’m happy to send through a copy of my index in Excel format. Leave a comment below, or get in touch via the Contact page.
As also as promised, my 3 takeaways;
Edison’s factory fire – everything is an opportunity if you’re open to it.
Changing your perspective on obstacles being opportunities is difficult and takes time. Worth the effort though.
A quote from Amelia Earhart “Always think with your stick forward”. That is, you can’t ever let up your flying speed – if you do, you crash. Be deliberate, of course, but you always need to be moving forward.
Re-framing my relationship with obstacles, and making it part of my existence, is I suspect, going to be something I’ll have to work on for the rest of my life. But in the short time I’ve been trying to implement it, I’ve learned a lot.