After reading The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday, I have become fascinated by Stoic Philosophy. The works of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epicurus, thinkers from almost two thousand years ago, can still be applied to so many aspects of modern life. They embody a form of life philosophy which refuses to spend its time with vague hypothesizing but instead attempts to answer questions that can help us all to live a better, happier life. In the past few days, I have devised a mechanism for dealing with the problems and obstacles in my own life, that I will be laying out in this blog post.
The crux of stoic philosophy is that the obstacles in our lives provoke us to grow and improve. So when you’re facing a difficulty, instead of spending hours worrying, you should concentrate on the positive growth that the obstacle can provide. Stoic thinkers also argue that it is your mental response to an obstacle that determines whether it can be overcome. So the person who finds and implements a strategy to solve a problem, will always perform better than the person who spends their time complaining or worrying.
In my life, I was finding that I would spend hours mulling over obstacles. I’d find my mind constantly returning to the same fairly negative thought patterns over and over. So based on Stoic philosophy, I have devised a three-part technique for dealing with the problems and obstacles that arise in life. This is a how-to, strategy guide for dealing with a mental funk!
1) Clear your mind. Reset your mentality.
Before you can tackle the obstacle you’re are facing it is important to leave negative, worrisome thinking behind. Often when in the midst of an obstacle or worry, you enter into a negative thought cycle. Where you simply don’t have the mental strength to escape, and think rationally about the problem at hand. But I have discovered that if I take a short walk around the block I can clear my mind and reset my mentality. Getting your blood moving and experiencing the sensations of the world, outside of the issue you are facing, allows you to come back to the problem objectively and with renewed fervour. Everyone can find their own method for leaving the negativity behind from hopping on the rowing machine for a sprint to playing Fifa. The aim is to combat instantaneous thinking, where you simply jump to the nearest, usually most negative response to an obstacle.
2) Assault the problem.
After you’ve gotten over the intoxication of inactivity and negative thinking, it is time to assault the problem full on.
I find that sitting down with a pen and paper or open word document is the best way to brainstorm my thinking on an issue. The first thing is to write down exactly what the problem you are facing is. Try to do this objectively, not exaggerating the severity of the problem or being overly harsh on yourself for past mistakes.
Next, you should think about what the problem can teach you. And how it can help you to grow and develop as a person. It’s very difficult to accept that a problem isn’t as bad as it seems, but you should attempt to think with a positive mindset.
Finally, you should consider how you will physically deal with the issue at hand. How can you overcome the problem and teach yourself the most at the same time? One way to achieve this is to attempt to find a new perspective on the problem. Many people spend hours thinking about problems that simply aren’t actually problems. For example, an annoying work colleague might seem like the gravest of problems. But when you begin to see the issue from their perspective you might begin to empathise with them. It is very difficult, if not impossible to change others, and so the best outcome for you is simply not to be bothered by them.
I find it really useful to think of a one-line conclusion to the problem, that I can use as my mental mantra, to prevent dawdling on the problem’s negative thoughts.
3) Stop thinking. Get growing.
Once you’ve concluded on the problem at hand, it is important to get to work on a solution and not mull on the issue anymore. You’ve focused your attention 100% on the obstacle, so further deliberating is unlikely to produce any new insights. The best way to prevent the negative thought cycle from returning is whenever it arises in your mind, instantly bring your thoughts back to the conclusion that you came to in part 2. Move on with your life.
Two other ways to tackle your brain mulling over the same issues, used by Marcus Aurelius:
I am not going to die from this.
Does what happened keep you from acting with justice, generosity, self-control, sanity, prudence, honesty, humility, straightforwardness?
The key to this way of thinking is to recognize the power that you have in the world. Even if the obstacle is insurmountable, and you are destined to lose however you act, you still have the immense power to respond with courage, not letting the obstacle get you down. This is to accept your stock in life and concentrate your efforts on improving it. One phrase that encapsulates this idea is amor fati, which is a latin phrase meaning love of fate.
There is a fantastic story of Thomas Edison who, when his research campus containing all of his life’s work was burning down in a fire, simply called all of his friends and family around to enjoy the chemical fuelled fire show. Declaring “They will never see a fire like this again” and that “he just got rid of a load of rubbish”. He could have spent weeks mourning the huge set back in his life work, but that would have got him nowhere. So he accepted the problem and tried to get whatever he could out of it. He then assaulted the issue and despite a loss of $1 million dollars worth of work in the fire managed to make revenues of over $10 million that year.
Life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it. - Charles Swindoll