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.
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 parking 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.
For regular readers of the blog, you’ll be no stranger to Ryan Holiday. One of the most refreshing thinkers of our time and a prodigious author whose books I’ve covered in previous posts.
His latest book, Stillness is the Key is out now, and is a must read for those looking to open the door to a healthier, less anxious and more productive life and career.
I received a signed copy (!) only a few days ago, and having already devoured it, am ready to go back for a second go, but this time with pen and sticky notes in hand.
But we’ll leave the book for a moment or two. What I want to talk about is finding that stillness.
There’s no doubt hedonistic 24-hour news cycles, seemingly infinite amount of information and shallow gratification available at the end of a smart phone makes seeking out stillness appear either impossible or not worth the effort.
We could be right.
History says otherwise.
Turns out seeking stillness is not a new concept. The ancient Buddhists, Muslims, Hebrews, Greeks, Epicureans, and Christians all had specific words for it.
What was it they were all seeking that warranted being given its own phrase?
Stillness by this definition appears not only achievable, but available with surprisingly little effort. Driving out to the Blue Mountains on a sunny weekend and taking a bush walk will do it, surely? Sitting quietly in a room on your own? But of course?! Hang on, it will won’t it??
Sure it will help, although it’s not this kind of stillness people have sought out for centuries.
According to Ryan, what they were looking for is “to be steady while the world spins around you. To act without frenzy. To hear only what needs to be heard. To possess quietude – exterior and interior – on command.”
If you’ve just rolled your eyes after reading that, then the rest of this post probably isn’t for you, which is absolutely OK. Thanks for reading this far.
If however, your eyebrows raised slightly, or you took a deeper than usual intake of breath and nodded your head, then this is where you need to be right now.
In the lead up to the formal book launch, Ryan has been tempting subscribers to his regular email, on some ‘how and why’ he seeks stillness (and pointing you in the direction of his book of course).
“Why bother seeking stillness?” you might ask. If you have asked yourself this, then we’ve got lots of work to do, and it starts right now.
There’s 28 tactics Ryan discusses in his latest post, and while not all of them are necessarily for me, many of them definitely are, and I thought I’d share my Top 4 favourite ways to seek stillness.
Side note: I’ve copied and pasted Ryan’s thoughts in italics below, so I can’t and won’t take any credit for them at all, but I’ve given some of my own thoughts in response. In having his writing side-by-side with mine, it fully exposes my shortcomings as a writer, but I felt it better got the point across coming from Ryan rather than me.
Take Walks. Nietzsche said that the ideas in ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’ came to him on a long walk. Nikola Tesla discovered the rotating magnetic field, one of the most important scientific discoveries of all time, on a walk through a city park in Budapest in 1882. When he lived in Paris, Ernest Hemingway would take long walks along the quais whenever he was stuck in his writing and needed to clarify his thinking. The cantankerous philosopher Søren Kierkegaard walked the streets of Copenhagen nearly every afternoon, as he wrote to his sister-in-law: “Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being.” I take a two-to-three mile walk each morning with my son—ideas for this very post came to me there.
I often recite a quote, “There’s yet to be a problem that couldn’t be solved by a long walk.” I looked up who said it so I could assign credit, and apart from various different forms of the same theme, came up with nothing. Perhaps it was me then?
Either way, taking an early morning walk when the rest of the neighbourhood is sound asleep, is invigorating, and I can’t recommend it enough. Obviously be mindful of your personal safety, but if you have (or can make!) the opportunity, a long walk provides so much space for clarity of thought it should be prescribed as a mandatory antidote for stress.
Stop Watching the News. The number one thing to filter out if you want more equanimity in your life? The news! “If you wish to improve,” Epictetus said, “be content to appear clueless or stupid in extraneous matters.” Not only does the news cost us our peace of mind, but it actually prevents us from creating real change, right now. Being informed in important…watching the news in real time is not how you get there.
The last time I actually sat and read a newspaper was sometime back in the 90’s, and I can’t even remember why I did it. Perhaps it was to look cool and informed when I was at University.
I don’t watch the news on TV, I don’t read online news websites, or subscribe to email alerts. The only news I get is the on-the-hour update on my local ABC radio station on the drive to work, and often then I turn it off and put on some music.
Because who cares? There’s nothing in the news which makes me stronger, smarter, faster, healthier, or better, so why bother? When people ask “did you hear about X?”, I say no and I ask them about it. I find it’s a much better way to engage with people and find out what they think about a particular topic. Besides, most news these days is sad, tragic, sensationalist or benign, so I’d rather read a book or listen to a podcast anyway.
Try it for a week. I promise you won’t feel like you’re missing out on anything. Read a book instead.
Read books. “Turn off your radio,” Dorothy Day, the Catholic nun and social activist, wrote in her diary in 1942, “put away your daily paper…and spend time reading.” She meant books. Big, smart, wonderful books. If you’re stressed, stop whatever you’re doing and sit down with a book. You’ll find yourself calming down. You’ll get absorbed into a different world. William Osler, the founder of Johns Hopkins University, told aspiring medical students that when chemistry or anatomy distressed their soul, to “seek peace in the great pacifier, Shakespeare.” It doesn’t have to be plays—any great literature will do. Books are a way to get stillness on demand.
I’ve written about this before. I used to read only at Christmas time and occasionally if I dug out a book I’d already read. Now? My bedside table strains under the load of books, my credit card gets a workout at Book Depository at least 3-4 times a month, and my locker at work overflows every now and again with books spilling onto the floor.
During lunch at work I’m buried in a book. Sure I may only get through 5-10 pages before being interrupted, but in those 10 minutes, I’m a million miles away, either in WWI Europe with Biggles, or some recommendation I’ve been given by Ryan, Jocko or Tim. It’s time well spent and I love it.
Similar to the walking, I can’t recommend this enough. Lots of people have said to me “I’m not much of a reader“, to which I reply “You just haven’t found the right book yet.” Just try. Pick up an old favourite and get back into the habit of reading. Buy a book, go to the library, get a Kindle, get an online subscription on your iPad, go into a second hand book shop, go to the local fete and buy 10 books for $5. Just start reading again. Please!
Be Present. They call it “the present” for a reason. Because each moment is a gift. Just stop. Breathe this in. Forget the past. Ignore the future. Just be. We are human beings after all.
Only needs one picture to show the value of this.
So there they are. My Top 4 tips for starting on the path the stillness. I want to stress one last thing before we finish up. Stillness is different to being idle. Stillness does not mean sitting in front of the TV and being physically still while your brain atrophies in the face of more reality television. Stillness means you feel comfortable facing even the most challenging physical, emotional and stressful situations with a level of calm others lack. Stillness is to act without frenzy.
So why do all this? Why seek out stillness?
For me, I’ve found apart from it being a pleasant thing to do in its own right, I’ve become much more effective as a human. Work is less stressful; I can be more engaged with deep thinking – about all sorts of stuff; I’m more easily able to handle the stressors of being a parent of young kids; I’m calmer when uncertainty and chaos strikes, and overall life just seems to be a little easier all round.
Seems worth seeking out a little stillness don’t you think?
Did you enjoy the post? We’d love you to leave a comment and share your thoughts. Do you have other ways you like to seek stillness? Let the world know!
“It’s the bearings. Definitely the bearings. They didn’t do the maintenance checks on the bearings”
“Concrete cancer. Definitely concrete cancer. Probably not enough cover to the reo”
“It was the Mafia-supplied concrete. Had too much sand in it”
I’m talking about the recent partial bridge collapse (well, part of it collapsed entirely) in Genoa, Italy. I daren’t speculate as to the reason, or reasons, it collapsed, as I’m sure there’s a bunch of people, much smarter than I, who are busy trying to figure that out.
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.
At risk of being yet another armchair critic of the goings-on at the cricket in South Africa, I thought it’d be a perfect (yet unfortunate) opportunity to talk about ego. It’s been the enemy and downfall of leaders great and small over the millennia, and appears to be in no danger of being any less of an opponent to greatness in 2018.
There is an invasive desire (and ability) of the media in the 21st century to capture, record and dissect the failings of leaders more so now than any other time in history, so the happenings in Cape Town simply provide us with a more intimate look at how blinding ego can be to leaders – in sports, in business, in families.
Surely it was ego that lead the ‘senior leaders’ of the Australian Cricket team to consider that a combined inspectorate of eagle-eyed viewers, commentators and umpires would not catch their indiscretion? As an random side note on seeing things from a long way away – I read an article recently that described a new space telescope with the ability to shoot images with 40 times more clarity than Hubble. Simply breathtaking stuff. In layman’s terms, this telescope is so powerful it can see right now what you’re thinking tomorrow. Now the outcome of a cricket test has far less importance than seeking clarity on the origins of the universe, but likely has a lot more relevance to the humble earthling, and my roundabout point is that in 2018, we can see everything.
So what does any of this have to do with ego? Imagine the ego, the sheer audacity of a person, or group of persons, to consider this was an appropriate course of action to take, and that they’d never get caught, or if they did, that their status, their influence, their gravitas would see this incident swallowed up by tomorrow’s next Bachelor in Paradise headline.
You hear of petty criminals who rob a bottle shop while still wearing their name tag from work, or make no attempt to cover their faces while staring doe-eyed into the CCTV cameras, and wonder how anyone could possibly be that dim. That’s a different level of dysfunction, and is most likely not a factor in this malaise.
In mid-2017 I read a book called Ego is the enemyby Ryan Holiday which fundamentally shifted my awareness of ego as a part of your leadership characteristic. It’s easy to say “my ego is in check”, or that you’re “really humble”, but if you find yourself saying it aloud to people, it’s likely neither is true.
“I’m the most humble guy in the entire world….”
– Someone who isn’t
There are countless examples throughout history where powerful leaders and influencers were crushed by the trappings of their ego, but you can read about them pretty much everywhere. Google John DeLorean, Howard Hughes, or Ulysses S. Grant for some cautionary tales of how ego torpedoed the fortunes (not just financial) of some truly remarkable individuals. What I wanted to do today was tell you a story, not of a powerful leader or influencer, but from a little closer to home.
Not long ago a set of tender documents came across his desk. A nice meaty package of work that would have seen his business take its virginal steps into directly managing works on the ground. Not something new for him personally, but certainly the first time as a small business owner. This fellow knew enough about the type of work to be dangerous, and his existing relationships with the client and key stakeholders was a definite advantage. Our fellow contacted a close friend of his who works in the same broad field and enquired if he knew of any companies that might like to partner up. He did, and contact was made.
A meeting was scheduled, and after the usual polite pleasantries, the Director and Operations Manager of the second company kicked off by saying they’d struggled to find any information on his business, with no apparent website or company LinkedIn page to be found anywhere.
“That’s right, we don’t need to advertise, we go by word of mouth”
Any alarm bells ringing yet? Our friend continued to regale the two travelling businessmen with stories of the successful work he’d done over the last several years on the particular Project. The relationships forged, the contacts made, and the required skill set to lead the team. Yes – he was the man to lead this team. The director politely listened and made all the obligatory head nods and ‘Oh yes, that’sinteresting‘ responses before it was his turn to speak.
“Well we have a different model in mind, where WE lead the team, prepare the submission, and you consult to us.”
It was at this exact moment I’d realised my ego had f**ked me.
I hadn’t even considered they wouldn’t sign up to the plan and had nothing prepared as a response.
Yes, that fellow was me.
“I’d realised my ego had f**ked me”
On reflection, who was I to think that this successful company, several decades in the game, offices in 4 Australian states, would think that after one phone call and a carefully crafted email from a complete stranger, they would willingly hitch their wagon to my horse. That without ANY form of actionable intel, would sign up to me being the lead in a reasonably major contract and potentially expose their business to all levels of unknown risk.
I (my ego) had assumed that simply by force of my own existence that they’d be only too happy to join my posse, that I’d lead the tender, see my company name on the front of the glossy submission, and spend my days writing lists of all the things I planned to do with the money I was going to make.
They had considered (and upon reflection, rightly so), that as the primary provider of the resources, the equipment and cash flow, that’d they’d be better positioned to lead, but would be interested in engaging me as an advisor. Now, certainly not on the scale of international ball-tampering or driving an innovative car company into the ground (refer John DeLorean), but a blow to one’s ego none the less.
My ego had f**ked me.
I’ll admit I think I recovered from the shock of the realisation quite well, and for what it’s worth, the rest of the meeting turned out I believe, to be a success. Regardless of the outcome of the submission, I learned a very valuable lesson – perspective.
Always consider an offer or proposition, be it a business deal or a otherwise, from the other person’s perspective. Throw off the shackles of a usual attempt at this, where you simply consider all the good things that may happen, but dive deep and go dark. What could go wrong (or that they might consider could go wrong), consider why they would want to deal with you at all in the first place, consider how they might even use you for their own nefarious objective. Go Machiavellian.
Nitchske once said “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster” which I paraphrase often and with considerably less grace. I’m not suggesting that you live in the dark space of considering every encounter is likely to result in harm or failure, as you run the risk of it infecting your entire being. Just don’t close yourself off to the potential.
Bill Walsh, legendary coach of the San Francisco 49’ers in the late 70’s took a team so used to losing that it had become their culture, and 3 years later lifted the Super Bowl trophy. Often asked about his plan for winning, he is credited for saying he was not focusing on winning per se, but on implementing a ‘Standard of Performance’. A program of instilling excellence. Simple but exacting standards mattered more than a grand plan of winning, but he knew, he believed, that on that foundation, that the winning would come. It did.
The lesson I learned is that I was so focused on winning, that my own standard of performance had dropped, and that there was room (and need) for significant improvement. The stakes were low I’ll admit, but better learned now, than find myself in the Championship Game with my ego playing for the opposition.