The day has come. The Obstacle Is The Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph is now out. I’ve written a ton of pieces about the book, I produced content and images to support the book and of course, there is already all sorts of press about the book out. I want to use this post (which will be updated for the next couple weeks) as an archive of all of that—or as a place to get started if you’re new to me and my work.
But my week began with a near fatal car accident on a dark highway and ended with someone breaking into my new home, ransacking it and stealing most of what I own–and destroying what they left behind. For good measure, my pet chickens were later decapitated and disemboweled by an unknown animal.
Why this happened and who or what is to blame, I’m not sure. But I can tell you for sure where the biggest problem lay: I was not at all expecting it. Not at all. And so it felt terrible.
We can easily accept in the abstract that there is no good or bad, that we create definitions and categories for objective events outside of our control. Yet, when it happens to us in reality, particularly as a surprise, our very human side kicks in.
It’s bad. We feel bad. Real bad.
Over the last few years, I have noticed something strange. The more in my head my career has taken me, the more vulnerable I have become. In some ways this is good. Writing forces you to become more in touch with your emotions; writing is often inherently an empathic act, so practicing it makes you more empathetic. So does reading. In my relationships, this has all made for positive change.
But there is another part of this vulnerability. Sensitivity to loud noises, to temptations, to moods–these are increased the more in your head you get. For instance, it makes many of us addicted to our routines and leaves us exposed when that routine is interrupted.
I think when you manipulate your own mind and your work all day, it feels natural to assume the rest of the world is like this too. You need things your way, and need them to happen on your terms. This is most definitely a weakness. Vulnerability is a good thing, up until it becomes an entitlement.
Not all of us are artists, I understand, but the point stands for everyone else too. Inured from harsh realities humans once accepted as commonplace–from sudden and unpredictable weather to sudden and unpredictable death–we can forget how capricious events can be. We deliberately do not think of these possibilities because we don’t want to ruin our (delicate) moods or disrupt our routine.
Life does not tolerate this for very long.
Fate often lulls us into complacency before reminding us that life is wicked and unpredictable.
As Euripides put it: “Foolish is the man who delights in his good fortune, supposing it will never leave him.”
The mathematical law of the universe says it more clearly: Everything regresses towards the mean.
The mean in life, we must never forget, is punctuated bursts of violence and destruction and someone else’s whim.
In a second, it can all change.
An accident. A diagnosis. A news alert.
Tomorrow, someone could blow up our economy and you could lose everything you have. A dictator could move the world towards war. Or, someone could slam into you in an intersection. Or they could come through an upstairs window and make off with your most valuable possessions.
This is life. These things will happen. Or maybe they won’t. No, they definitely will–the variability lies only in the degree and the ETA.
I don’t mean what you think I mean. Not: did you buy a bigger safe? Or did you set up security cameras or run a practice drill for some calamity? (Though all those things are important and helpful). Because by “again” I don’t mean the exact same event. I mean fate, misfortune, unpredictable and unpleasant circumstances.
So: Are you now mentally prepared for a world you cannot control? Now do you finally understand how random and vicious the world can be? Did you learn from your last reminder?
Because, to come back to those philosophers from earlier (whose advice about responses is a little more practical), we have only one choice. That choice is acceptance. See, we don’t control what happens to us. No amount of technology or civilization will ever make a difference in that regard, except at the margins.
We choose whether we will make ourselves vulnerable. We choose whether we will get soft. We decide if we’ll be delusional.
We can also choose to prepare ourselves for a savage world. To use philosophy as a weapon in our defense. Bad things will happen. They will knock us on our ass. But we have the choice now to dull the surprise in advance and quicken our recovery time.
Many, many articles on and from the book to come. I will post them here for your enjoyment. Thanks to everyone for their support and don’t forget to take advantage of the pre-order bonuses while you still can.
Very few people wake up and think “I need philosophy.” This is perfectly understandable. But of course, everyone has their own problems and are dealing with the difficulties of life in some way or another.
The irony is this is actually what ancient philosophy was intended to ameliorate. “Vain is the word of a philosopher,” Epicurus once said, “which does not heal the suffering of man.” Centuries later, Thoreau expressed this same thought: “To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school . . . it is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.”
Suffering might be a strong word to describe most our travails in love, in business, with our egos, with our urges, with our jerk of a neighbor who keeps stealing our parking space. But it turns out that this was exactly what philosophy can help with.
Whatever problem you’re facing right now, someone else probably already went through it. And their advice and wisdom comes down to us through philosophy. It was jotted down by slaves and poets and emperors and politicians and soldiers and ordinary men and women to help with their own problems and with the problems of their friends, family and followers. This wisdom is there, available to us.
Some of the best philosophers never wrote anything down–they just lived exemplary lives and provided an example which we can now learn from. That too, was philosophy. It was practical and it was applicable and it made life better.
In a humble continuation of that tradition, I’d like this post to serve as a quick introduction to the world of practical philosophy–philosophy you can actually read and use in your own life. I won’t pass along any of that academic stuff that Schopenhauer once dismissed as “fencing in the mirror.” I want to give you the opposite of what you probably experienced in college, which despite the good intentions of your professor, you understandably resented and immediately forgot. I’m also giving you only the original texts, all of which I promise are totally readable and will change your life.
Meditation is perhaps the only document of its kind ever made. It is the private thoughts of the world’s most powerful man giving advice to himself on how to make good on the responsibilities and obligations of his positions. Trained in stoic philosophy, Marcus stopped almost every night to practice a series of spiritual exercises–reminders designed to make him humble, patient, empathetic, generous, and strong in the face of whatever he was dealing with.
Well, now we have this book. It is imminently readable and perfectly accessible. You cannot read this book and not come away with a phrase or a line that will helpful to you next time you are in trouble. Read it, it is practical philosophy embodied.
Seneca, like Marcus, was also a powerful man in Rome. He was also a great writer and from the looks of it, a trusted friend who gave great advice to his friends. Much of that advice survives in the form of letters. Now we can read those letters and they can guide us through problems with grief, wealth, poverty, success, failure, education and so many other things. Seneca was a stoic as well, but like Marcus, he was practical and borrowed liberally from other schools. As he quipped to a friends, “I don’t care about the author if the line is good.” That is the ethos of practical philosophy–it doesn’t matter from whom or when it came from, what matters if it is helps you in your life, if only for a second. Reading Seneca will do that. (Other collections of his thoughts are great too: Penguin’s On the Shortness of Life is excellent.)
This is as ephemeral as I am going to get. While most of the other practical philosophy recommendations I’m making are bent towards hard, practical advice, Heraclitus might seem a bit poetic. But those beautiful lines are really the same direct advice and timeless, perspective-changing observations as the others.
“Try in vain with empty talk / to separate the essences of things / and say how each thing truly is.”
“Applicants for wisdom / do what I have done: / inquire within.”
Man is sent to a concentration camp and finds some way for good to come of it. Finds some way to turn it into the ultimate metaphor for life: that we have little control over our circumstances, complete control over our attitude, and our ability to make meaning out of the things which happen to us.
In Frankl’s case, we are lucky that he was a brilliant psychologist and writer and managed to turn all this into one of the most important books of the 20th century. I think constantly of his line about the man who asks, “What is the meaning of life?” The answer is that you don’t get to ask the question. Life is the one who asks and we must reply with our actions.
Montaigne was deeply influenced by some of the books I mentioned above. He was the epitome of Heraclitus’s line about “inquiring within.” So much so that he spent basically the entire second part of his life asking himself (and other people) all sorts of interesting questions and then exploring the answers in the form of short, provocative essays. (A favorite: Whether he was playing with his cat, or whether he was the toy to his cat). These essays are always good for a helpful thought or two–be it about death, about “other” people, about animals, about sex, or anything.
While Montaigne’s essays are good for making us think, Emerson’s essays make us act. They remind us that we are ultimately responsible for our own life, for making ethical choices and for fulfilling our potential. I prefer Emerson to the more indolent Thoreau and because unlike most classic writers, he embodies that uniquely American drive and ambition (but in a healthy way). If you have not read Emerson, you should. If you have–and you remember fondly his reminders about recognizing our own genius in the work of others, or his reminders to experience the beauty of nature–that counts as philosophy. See how easy it is?
Schopenhauer is another brilliant composer of quick thoughts that will help us with our problems. His work was often concerned with the “will”–our inner drives and power. “For that which is otherwise quite indigestible, all affliction, vexation, loss, grief, time alone digests.” But he also talks about surprisingly current issues: “Newspapers are the second hand of history”–and that the hand is often broken or malfunctioning. And of course, the timeless as well: “Hope is the confusion of the desire for a thing for its probability.”
First off, Epicurus’ philosophy has almost nothing to do with our definition of the word “Epicurean.” I mean look: “Live your life without attracting attention.” He who has the least need of tomorrow will most gladly greet tomorrow.” “It is better for you to be free of fear and lying on a bed of straw than to own a couch of gold and a lavish table and yet have no peace of mind.” Epicurus was a teacher and a philosopher, and very little of his work survives. But the fragments which do are humble, noble and mostly about avoiding needless fear and anxiety in life. Those are all good things are they not? Ironically, Epicurus also has another more “scientific” side to him and there are few essays which go into great depth about “atoms.” I mostly skip those and stick to the lessons on imperturbability and self-reliance. This classic essay on the life of Epicurus is also great.
This last thought will probably get me into a little trouble because I am veering off what is more directly considered “practical philosophy.” But I think I am on good ground here. For starters, Cato the Younger–considered one of the most influential stoics–never wrote anything down. He was a philosopher by action and so many people studied his “work” through biography and anecdote. This was a Roman tradition. For instance, Plutarch wrote many biographies of famous historical figures–from Demosthenes to Mark Antony–which function as philosophy and moral example. A few biographies worth picking up for their practical philosophic value: Where Men Win Glory by Jon Krakauer (Pat Tillman embodies the tragic hero). Titan: The Life of John D Rockefeller (unflappable, disciplined, ultimately generous and humble–there are a lot of good stories here). I mentioned Cato earlier–the most recent biography by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman is quite good. I like Frederick Douglass’ autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom as well as Xenophon’s Cyrus the Great (the modern business translation is most readable). I try to read at least one such biography a month, to get recommendations start here.
This list is by no means conclusive. Absent are many other great works of practical philosophy, and of course, other great works of theoretical and systemic philosophy. I’m not saying those are without value. I’m just saying that when most people wake up and try to make the most of their lives–or often, just struggle to get by–that’s not what they’re looking for.
They’re looking for help. Well, philosophy can be that help. Most of us are just suspicious because we wrongly associate it with long lectures or confusing translations. That’s a shame.
Because the works above have long been resources for people with all sorts of problems, from fighter pilots to kings to accountants to convicts to parents to athletes. In other words, unlike most of the big intimidating (usually German) philosophers whose names you cannot pronounce, this is philosophy for outside the classroom. Take it with you, use it, depend on it.
I’m sure some philosophy purists are going to object to my use of the books above and my characterization of some of their favorite thinkers. But I hope they understand that we have the same goal in mind: more people using philosophy as it was intended (improving lives).
I hope the rest of you find some solace, aid or inspiration in these recommendations. Those books changed my life and I hope they’ll change yours.
GEORGE: I can’t get it out of my head. I just keep singing it over and over. It just comes out. I have no control over it. I’m singing it on elevators, buses. I sing it in front of clients. It’s taking over my life.
JERRY: You know, Schumann went mad from that. He went crazy from one note. He couldn’t get it out of his head. I think it was an A. He kept repeating it over and over again. He had to be institutionalized.
GEORGE: Really? What if it doesn’t stop?
JERRY gestures “That’s the breaks.” – Seinfeld “The Jacket”
I won’t say that I present the picture of mental health or anything, but most people would be surprised to find out I harbor a habit that hints at deep insanity.
I listen to the same song over and over again. Alone in my office, or on my iPod, or on my phone, I play them on repeat over and over and over again. Loudly.
In my iTunes library there are certain songs of an embarrassing nature that I have played more than 300 or 400 times in a row (that is a full 24 hours each). I’ve gone through so many computers over the last few years that I don’t have an accurate tally, but if I were to add them up, the numbers and the songs would seem preposterous, even to me. They are my version of the backyard shed, covered in incomprehensible gibberish in A Beautiful Mind, or the wall in Carrie Mathison’s apartment after a manic fit. And then I wake from my stupor and discard the songs like used condoms and pretend it never happened.
As a result, I no longer enjoy “music,” a fact that the 16-year-old version of myself–the one who was in a band and had hard drives full of rare music–would have found unthinkable. God knows, I never thought I’d find myself 142 listens in on a Taylor Swift song on a Tuesday morning.
But there is a method to the madness. I found that this secret habit has been the fuel for my creative output.
See, part of writing–or really any creative endeavor from brainstorming to marketing–requires tuning everything out. There are a couple ways to do this. You have your noise canceling headphones or ambient noise machines. You can put your phone on “Airplane Mode” or tell everyone to leave you alone.
The problem with these reductive techniques is that they leave everything a little empty. In my experience, it’s not about quiet, it’s about finding your zone.
I think melodic music, played on repeat, puts you in a heightened emotional state–while simultaneously dulling your awareness to most of your surroundings. It puts you in a creative zone. The important facilities are turned on, while all the others are turned off.
Sometimes “good” songs can help you with that. But Bruce Springsteen only has so many songs that work for this (Try “I’m On Fire”). You exhaust them soon enough and have to start listening to songs on the Top 40. And you stop caring who wrote them–as long as it brings you closer to that state.
Michael Lewis (Liar’s Poker, The Blind Side, The Big Short) has spoken about this too. Writing a book–or really any major creative project–puts you in an “agitated mental state.” It’s hard to sleep, it’s hard to concentrate, it’s hard to be present in everyday. But you can’t afford that when you’re actually working. He fixes that by doing the following:
I pull down the blinds. I put my headset on and play the same soundtrack of twenty songs over and over and I don’t hear them. It shuts everything else out. So I don’t hear myself as I’m writing and laughing and talking to myself. I’m not even aware I’m making noise. I’m having a physical reaction to a very engaging experience. It is not a detached process.
You might ask, can you accomplish this by listening to music like a normal person? I would have thought so too, but the answer is no. Repeat on the same song or the same two or three songs allows the songs to fade into themselves–to become a more or less a continuous stream. The reason I gravitate towards radio singles is that they normally have big, catchy choruses. The idea is that after enough listens to song becomes a perpetual chorus.
Time stops. Distractions stop. Extraneous thinking stops. (Proof of which is the fact that you’re not bothered by the fact that the song is looping every three minutes and thirty seconds.)
All that’s left is the work at hand. All that’s left is that little voice inside your head that you’re attempting to hear and translate onto the page. All that’s left is the book or the paper you’re reading. All that’s left is problem you’re trying to crack when you go for a walk. All that’s left is the workout you’re trying to complete.
The bullshit–well, it disappears for a fleeting second.
Creative work isn’t about pleasure. It’s not always fun. It’s about reaching something inside yourself–something that society and everyday life make extraordinarily difficult. This is one way to do it.
The fact that it basically ruined music for me is a cost I am willing to pay. I’ll take my fix from anyone–and I’m not ashamed to say that I have. Even if that means I have to listen to the Black Eyed Peas or some other god-awful group.
Every writer (or painter or thinker or adman) finds their own way. This is mine. Maybe it will work for you. Or maybe you’ll try it and never look at me the same way again.