Ryan Holiday‘s new book, The Obstacle is the Way is launched today, and you can read an excerpt from Ryan’s book below, which focusses on controlling your emotions, no matter how difficult the circumstances. We’ll feature some more extracts in a couple of weeks (on May 10th and 17th). Ryan’s book draws on Marcus Aurelius’ idea that “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way”. The book will show both how you can use this idea to obstacles into opportunities and how this has been done throughout history, from John D. Rockefeller to Amelia Earhart to Ulysses S. Grant to Steve Jobs.
Control Your Emotions
by Ryan Holiday
Would you have a great empire? Rule over yourself. —PUBLIUS SYRUS
When America raced to send the first men into space, they trained the astronauts one skill more than in any other: the art of not panicking.
When people panic, they make mistakes. They override systems. They disregard procedures, ignore rules. They deviate from the plan. They become unresponsive and stop thinking clearly. They just react—not to what they need to react to, but to the survival hormones that are coursing through their veins.
Welcome to the source of most of our problems down here on Earth. Everything is planned down to the letter, then something goes wrong and the first thing we do is trade in our plan for a good ol’ emotional freak-out. Some of us almost crave sounding the alarm, because it’s easier than dealing with whatever is staring us in the face.
At 150 miles above Earth in a spaceship smaller than a VW, this is death. Panic is suicide.
So panic has to be trained out. And it does not go easily.
Before the first launch, NASA re-created the fateful day for the astronauts over and over, step by step, hundreds of times—from what they’d have for breakfast to the ride to the airfield. Slowly, in a graded series of “exposures,” the astronauts were introduced to every sight and sound of the experience of their firing into space. They did it so many times that it became as natural and familiar as breathing. They’d practice all the way through, holding nothing back but the liftoff itself, making sure to solve for every variable and remove all uncertainty.
Uncertainty and fear are relieved by authority. Training is authority. It’s a release valve. With enough exposure, you can adapt out those perfectly ordinary, even innate, fears that are bred mostly from unfamiliarity. Fortunately, unfamiliarity is simple to fix (again, not easy), which makes it possible to increase our tolerance for stress and uncertainty.
John Glenn, the first American astronaut to orbit the earth, spent nearly a day in space still keeping his heart rate under a hundred beats per minute. That’s a man not simply sitting at the controls but in control of his emotions. A man who had properly cultivated, what Tom Wolfe later called, “the Right Stuff.”
But you . . . confront a client or a stranger on the street and your heart is liable to burst out of your chest; or you are called on to address a crowd and your stomach crashes through the floor.
It’s time to realize that this is a luxury, an indulgence of our lesser self. In space, the difference between life and death lies in emotional regulation.
Hitting the wrong button, reading the instrument panels incorrectly, engaging a sequence too early—none of these could have been afforded on a successful Apollo mission— the consequences were too great.
Thus, the question for astronauts was not How skilled a pilot are you, but Can you keep an even strain? Can you fight the urge to panic and instead focus only on what you can change? On the task at hand?
Life is really no different. Obstacles make us emotional, but the only way we’ll survive or overcome them is by keeping those emotions in check—if we can keep steady no matter what happens, no matter how much external events may fluctuate.
The Greeks had a word for this: apatheia.
It’s the kind of calm equanimity that comes with the absence of irrational or extreme emotions. Not the loss of feeling altogether, just the loss of the harmful, unhelpful kind. Don’t let the negativity in, don’t let those emotions even get started. Just say: No, thank you. I can’t afford to panic.
This is the skill that must be cultivated—freedom from disturbance and perturbation. So you can focus your energy exclusively on solving problems, rather than reacting to them.
A boss’s urgent e-mail. An asshole at a bar. A call from the bank—your financing has been pulled. A knock at the door—there’s been an accident.
As Gavin de Becker writes in The Gift of Fear, “When you worry, ask yourself, ‘What am I choosing to not see right now?’ What important things are you missing because you chose worry over introspection, alertness or wisdom?”
Another way of putting it: Does getting upset provide you with more options?
Sometimes it does. But in this instance? No, I suppose not.
If an emotion can’t change the condition or the situation you’re dealing with, it is likely an unhelpful emotion. Or, quite possibly, a destructive one.
But it’s what I feel.
Right, no one said anything about not feeling it. No one said you can’t ever cry. Forget “manliness.” If you need to take a moment, by all means, go ahead. Real strength lies in the control or, as Nassim Taleb put it, the domestication of one’s emotions, not in pretending they don’t exist.
So go ahead, feel it. Just don’t lie to yourself by conflating emoting about a problem and dealing with it. Because they are as different as sleeping and waking.
You can always remind yourself: I am in control, not my emotions. I see what’s really going on here. I’m not going to get excited or upset.
We defeat emotions with logic, or at least that’s the idea. Logic is questions and statements. With enough of them, we get to root causes (which are always easier to deal with).
p style=”text-align: justify”>We lost money. But aren’t losses a pretty common part of business? Yes. Are these losses catastrophic? Not necessarily. So this is not totally unexpected, is it? How could that be so bad? Why are you all worked up over something that is at least occasionally supposed to happen?
Well . . . uhh . . . I . . .
And not only that, but you’ve dealt with worse situations than this. Wouldn’t you be better off applying some of that resourcefulness rather than anger?
Try having that conversation with yourself and see how those extreme emotions hold up. They won’t last long, trust that.
After all, you’re probably not going to die from any of this.
It might help to say it over and over again whenever you feel the anxiety begin to come on: I am not going to die from this. I am not going to die from this. I am not going to die from this.
Or try Marcus’s question:
Does what happened keep you from acting with justice, generosity, self-control, sanity, prudence, honesty, humility, straightforward- ness?
p style=”text-align: justify”>Nope. Then get back to work! Subconsciously, we should be constantly asking ourselves this question: Do I need to freak out about this? And the answer—like it is for astronauts, for soldiers, for doctors, and for so many other professionals—must be: No, because I practiced for this situation and I can control myself. Or, No, because I caught myself and I’m able to realize that that doesn’t add anything constructive.
Ryan Holiday is a media strategist and prominent writer on strategy and business. After dropping out of college at nineteen to apprentice under Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power, he went on to advise many bestselling authors and multiplatinum musicians. He served as director of marketing at American Apparel for many years, where his campaigns have been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube, and Google and written about in AdAge, theNew York Times, and Fast Company.
His first book, Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator—which the Financial Times called an “astonishing, disturbing book”—was a debut bestseller and is now taught in colleges around the world. He currently lives in Austin, Texas, and writes at RyanHoliday.net and Thought Catalog and for the New York Observer.