Updated: Apr 5, 2019
Marcus Aurelius was, at one point, arguably the most powerful man in the world. Not only did he hold the title as emperor in the glory days of Rome, but he was also a die-hard Stoic. The Stoics believed in the capacity humans hold to choose their attitude and judgment in any situation; and that since everything external to us is grossly out of our control, we should remain indifferent to it.
Stoicism is a philosophy of action emphasizing self-control and discipline. Its roots stem from a belief that negative emotions (such as conceit, jealousy, anger, and fear) arise from false perceptions and judgments, as well as the consequential turmoil they bring. Marcus used stoicism as a daily mechanism for personal development and self-regulation — attaining a healthy perspective that kept him humble, in light of his supreme position.
Ultimately, Stoicism is a guidance system with metrics that provide constant feedback, produce personal growth and hold us accountable to a higher standard of behavior. A perfect tool for challenging negative patterns of thought and behavior, while combatting human nature’s inclination to fall prey to self-pity.
I never saw a wild thing sorry for itself. A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough without ever having felt sorry for itself. -D.H. Lawrence
We enter the world with it swinging and slapping at us from the onset. This natural course of things dictates that we will face impediments in everything we do. Daily existence ensures that we will never operate in a bubble because the world is fraught with troubles and challenges. The path of life is trodden with peaks and valleys, switchbacks and wide ravines, falling rocks and tall grasses full of wild things.
The Stoics took this as the basis of life; they assumed it would always be difficult. Their philosophy is a way of dealing with these hardships. However, unlike other philosophies, which sprang up as contemporaries, the Stoics did not advocate turning a blind eye or turning the other cheek to the tribulations of life. Instead, they indicated that pain is what you make of it. With practice, stoicism produces mental resilience, characterizing that courage and calmness are epitomized in the face of adversity and trying circumstances.
Our friend, the Stoic emperor, summed it up nicely:
“Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed and you haven’t been.” – Marcus Aurelius
This is the precursor to the Stoic philosophy of turning the obstacle upside down. To be a Stoic is to search for opportunity in every problem and use it as a catalyst for growth. You may be stuck in traffic on that highway, irritated by the time-sucking nuisance that is every other car on the road. Using this scenario to replace Aurelius’ example of harm, he might have said:
Choose not to be irritated and you won’t feel irritated. Don’t feel irritated and you haven’t been.
You can apply this to every chosen negative in your life. It’s not ignoring the situation, the obstacle or the trouble you face. It isn’t assuming that you deserve it, only that you don’t need to make it into a miserable experience. You can simply turn it upside down.
Think for a moment about all the obstacles life has thrown at you. Think about any hardships you’re dealing with at the moment. If you’re stuck in traffic, use it to your advantage. Listen to an audio book, check your voicemail, or call your spouse and then your mother — thank them and say, “I love you.” Do you have a finicky customer that’s seeking excellence? Use this challenge to polish your product or service offering to exceed expectations. Is there a new employee at your office whose antics and frightfully tepid stories make you want to consider taking another job? Use it to increase your compassion, patience and understanding.
You could look at all these things as obstacles, and most certainly, your initial reaction is likely to underline a sensation of misery. But, you can turn each of these upside down.
How does that work?
Quite simply, if you aren’t irritated by the traffic (because you’ve worked Aurelius’ words to your favor), then the drive to work is not a burden. It is no longer an obstacle or nuisance – it is simply the way of life. Whatever is standing in the way actually becomes the way. It’s what you do with these moments that count.
Every time you face something that was an obstacle by turning it upside down, you never go back to the same old you. You become more patient, more vigilant, more prepared, more aware, more… well, you become more, not less. Every time you challenge and own the obstacle you change and grow.
When you come to a place where you view obstacles as gifts, they no longer stand in the way of your accomplishments. They become your path; they become the way you move through life, along the path you take.
To live is to face opposition. The path or the way should be full of challenges and obstacles. If yours is not, maybe you’re on the wrong path, or perhaps you’ve stopped walking.
Obstacles are therefore, not a slap in the face, but a beautiful beacon calling you towards your future. When we change our thinking, we are able to see and understand all of the opportunities we have for growth.
Nathan Eland is the CEO of Legends Leadership Concepts. A company dedicated to helping others overcome their obstacles.