Being productive doesn’t seem like it has much to do with philosophy, and sometimes philosophy seems like the opposite of productivity. Sitting around and debating arcane positions instead of getting up and getting work done are opposed in almost every regard. But with The Obstacle is The Way, author Ryan Holiday has written a book about how to use philosophy as a system for being productive. In How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big, creator of Dilbert, Scott Adams writes that being productive for him wasn’t about tips or tricks but applying a systematic approach to doing work. Each thing he did fit in his system and through persistence within that framework, he succeed.
Holiday, in turn, writes about using the philosophy of Stoicism as a mental model for being more productive, not only in work, but in life itself.
The book has three key sections – Perception, Action, and Will – and in each of them Holiday applies a view of Stoicism to hypothetical or historical examples to show how something can work.
“You will come across obstacles in life— fair and unfair. And you will discover, time and time again, that what matters most is not what these obstacles are but how we see them, how we react to them, and whether we keep our composure.”
The angle from which you see a situation can determine everything about how you react to it. If you’re stressed from a huge project at work, consider how you got to be in such a stressed position. Did you procrastinate and that led to these feelings? Was there a task that took too long? Seeing challenges as opportunities to grow is a key tool within stoicism for finding value in opportunities other people throw away.
“Our movements and decisions define us: We must be sure to act with deliberation, boldness, and persistence.”
Even if we can adjust our perception to viewing all things as having value, there will still be obstacles we have to move. Holiday doesn’t suggest that when our way is blocked we divert our paths, rather that we look at the boulder blocking our path and try actions to supplant it. We try to chisel, climb, or move. What matters most is doing something. The bolder may not move, try, fail, and try again. Action will be a bumpy road, expect this moving forward. Holiday gives plenty of examples in the book from ancient Romans to current businessmen but you know this in your own projects. Things never move constantly forward at the same pace but we need to put in the energy to keep moving.
“Will is our internal power, which can never be affected by the outside world. It is our final trump card. If action is what we do when we still have some agency over our situation, the will is what we depend on when agency has all but disappeared.”
How do we choose to reshuffle our thoughts if we don’t like the current situation? If a boss singles you out in a meeting, how can you choose to act? If your spouse springs a weekend project on you, if your kids spill milk for the hundredth time? Remember that what you plan and what will happen are never identical twins and that things will go wrong along the way. Mentally preparing to put out fires before they start to burn doesn’t attract things through negative thought, but prepares you for when it’s time to action.
Throughout the book, in explicit and implicit terms, Holiday writes that this is not a philosophy book for people who just want to think. It’s a philosophy book for people who want to act. If you want a shift in perspective, then The Obstacle is The Way is well worth the read.