A Lesson From The World’s Worst Week

April 28, 2014

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“Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck. All the terms of our human lot should be before our eyes.” – Seneca

A lot of bad stuff happened to me last week.

I know the philosophers say there is no such thing as good or bad events–that there are only our perceptions which make things one or the other.

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.

In your reaction to such inevitable events, you will undoubtedly ask yourself a million questions. Most of them will be pointless. One of them truly matters. Ask yourself: If it happens again, are you better prepared?

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.

What is in our control? Well, after our biology and psychology run their course–like shock for instance–all that’s left is our response. We control how we act, we control the stories we tell ourselves afterwards.

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.

It’s up to you whether you’ll take it.

This post originally ran on ThoughtCatalog.com. Comments can be seen there.

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

24 responses to A Lesson From The World’s Worst Week

  1. I loved your article. Truely awesome, easy to read and pure intelligence. Loved it gonna look up your stuff. That was time well spent. Made me think, really enjoyable.

  2. God Ryan! Hope you are recovering from these setbacks. As always, you have managed to see the benefits of any obstacle and are using it to grow as a human. You are an inspiration.

  3. Is this a repost? Because you definitely wrote something similar to this a while ago. Or did the same thing happen to you again??

    • What do you think genius?

      • Ryan, it all hits home, especially when running a business. Being in business is about being in constant conflict, with your staff, your customers, your suppliers, everyone. How well you can handle conflict correlates to how well you go in business. Keep these real life posts coming.

  4. Another occasion in which to obtain or reaffirm truths. I commend you on your ability to overcome the emotional aspect and take a deep breathe. We can only hope that you’re bound for a bout of positive events to bring you back towards the mean. By hope, I mean I’m confident that you’ll find a way to better yourself from this series of unfortunate circumstances. Glad that you’re okay.


  5. I hope you’re alright Ryan. Thanks for setting an example for the rest of us to follow.

  6. Sometimes we invite misfortune. I’m afraid you did exactly that by moving to the crime infested city New Orleans.

  7. Ryan, this is just a test of your stoic resolve as you are about to help many convert to stoicism. While I do hope you get justice. You can turn this obstacle into the way. Sorry about the books though.

  8. Great article! Hopefully the police will catch the people responsible for ransacking your home. Good luck with everything!

  9. Hi Ryan,
    Thanks for sharing this article. It coincided with my bad time this week, being blocked by nasty people. The thoughts you share really resonate with mine. Sometimes knowing is one thing but still very hard not to feel the feeling when you are in those kind of situation.
    Keep up the good work. The obstacle is the way.

  10. Ryan, I’m glad to hear that you are alright!

  11. To the point. I like it. The episode w/ Lewis Howes on School of Greatness resonated strongly.

    Thanks for the effort.

  12. Ryan Holiday. Saving my life. 🙂 Turning me back to being rational and calm rather than emotional. Will be ryanholiday-ing my days from now on. Will definitely buy your book.

  13. Great Article Ryan.
    Shows the importance of always being prepared for the things you can´t be prepared for.

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