What stands in the way becomes the way

One of the better books on modern, practical stoicism is Ryan Holiday's The Obstacle is the Way. Jocko Willink went viral synthesizing that same ethic with his uber-macho sounbite Good (here it is on YouTube). The idea is simple: if a problem presents itself, address the problem. Will wringing your hands, complaining, procrastinating, or digging-in your heels help address the problem? If not, then just get to it.

That the obstacle is the way -- lowercased, here -- is a cornerstone ethic, one of a few maxims like memento mori, or praemeditatio malorum that sum-up our whole shebang. Here's the original snippet translated by George Hays:

"Our actions may be impeded ..., but there can be no impeding our intentions or our dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purpose the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way." - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, p. 60

When a problem presents itself in your day-to-day, you need to make a value judgment about whether that problem matters, how much it matters, then address it. Problem-solving is a sequential action triggered by the presence of a problem. It is a system. It's like white blood cells attacking a virus. See virus? Kill virus.

When viewed as a sequence of events, it's easier to visualize how much of the emotional baggage associated with something going wrong serves only to delay the solution. If "getting pissed and losing your shit" is a touchpoint along the path to getting your problem solved, then it just takes you that much more time.

What's more, you can train or trick your mind (and your team, and your system of work) to perceive problems as wayfinders, like a road sign. It gives you direction.

Such is the message in the Jocko Willink clip above:

Oh, the mission got canceled? Good… We can focus on another one.
Didn’t get the new high-speed gear we wanted? Good… We can keep it simple.
Didn’t get promoted? Good… More time to get better.
Didn’t get funded? Good… We own more of the company.
Didn’t get the job you wanted? Good… Go out, gain more experience, and build a better resume.
Got injured? Good… Needed a break from training.
Got tapped out? Good… It’s better to tap out in training than tap out on the street.
Got beat? Good… We learned.
Unexpected problems? Good… We have to figure out a solutions

In this way the most direct analogy from software we can make is the bug. Your user takes an action that crashes your app? Good. You don't have to hem and haw about what to work on tomorrow. Didn't hit your quarterly OKR? Good. Figure out why. Is your colleague losing their shit? Good. Chaos is a ladder (#littlefinger).

The point here is to foster a dispassionate approach to problem solving. Problems are, in fact, clarifying. They're purpose-giving. What stands in the way becomes the way.

Craft virtuously,

Michael Schofield