Today we feature our final extract from Ryan Holiday‘s new book, The Obstacle is the Way, which draws on Marcus Aurelius’ idea that “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way”, and shows how you can turn 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. In this extract, Ryan focusses on the art of acquiescence and the strength one can take from this art….
The Art of Acquiescence
The Fates guide the person who accepts them and hinder the person who resists them. —CLEANTHES
Thomas Jefferson: born quiet, contemplative, and reserved—purportedly with a speech impediment. Compared to the great orators of his time—Patrick Henry, John Wesley, Edmund Burke—he was a terrible public speaker.
His heart set on politics, he had two options: Fight against this sentence, or accept it.
He chose the latter, channeling the energy into his writing, which others put into oratory instead. There he found his medium. He found he could express himself clearly. Writing was his strength. Jefferson was the one the founding fathers turned to when they needed the Declaration of Independence. He wrote one of the most important documents in history, in a single draft.
Jefferson just wasn’t a public speaker—that doesn’t make him less of a man for acknowledging it and acting accordingly. Same goes for Edison, who, as most people have no idea, was almost completely deaf. Or Helen Keller, who was deaf and blind. For both, it was the deprivation of these senses—and acceptance rather than resentment of that fact—that allowed them to develop different, but acutely powerful, senses to adjust to their reality.
It doesn’t always feel that way but constraints in life are a good thing. Especially if we can accept them and let them direct us. They push us to places and to develop skills that we’d otherwise never have pursued. Would we rather have everything? Sure, but that isn’t up to us.
“True genius,” as the infamous Dr. Samuel Johnson once said, “is a mind of large general powers accidentally deter- mined in some particular direction.”
That channeling requires consent. It requires acceptance. We have to allow some accidents to happen.to us.
I can’t just give up! I want to fight!
You know you’re not the only one who has to accept things you don’t necessarily like, right? It’s part of the human con- dition.
If someone we knew took traffic signals personally, we would judge them insane.
Yet this is exactly what life is doing to us. It tells us to come to a stop here. Or that some intersection is blocked or that a particular road has been rerouted through an inconvenient detour. We can’t argue or yell this problem away. We simply accept it.
That is not to say we allow it to prevent us from reaching our ultimate destination. But it does change the way we travel to get there and the duration of the trip.
When a doctor gives you orders or a diagnosis—even if it’s the opposite of what you wanted—what do you do? You accept it. You don’t have to like or enjoy the treatment but you know that denying it only delays the cure.
After you’ve distinguished between the things that are up to you and the things that aren’t (ta eph’hemin, ta ouk eph’he- min), and the break comes down to something you don’t control . . . you’ve got only one option: acceptance.
The shot didn’t go in. The stock went to zero. The weather disrupted the shipment. Say it with me: C’est la vie. It’s all fine. You don’t have to like something to master it—or to use it to some advantage. When the cause of our problem lies out- side of us, we are better for accepting it and moving on. For ceasing to kick and fight against it, and coming to terms with it. The Stoics have a beautiful name for this attitude. They call it the Art of Acquiescence.
Let’s be clear, that is not that same thing as giving up. This has nothing to do with action—this is for the things that are immune to action. It is far easier to talk of the way things should be. It takes toughness, humility, and will to accept them for what they actually are. It takes a real man or woman to face necessity.
All external events can be equally beneficial to us be- cause we can turn them all upside down and make use of them. They can teach us a lesson we were reluctant to other- wise learn.
For instance, in 2006 a long-term hip injury finally caught up with Lakers’ coach Phil Jackson, and the surgery he had to fix it severely limited his courtside movement. Relegated to a special captain’s-style chair near the players, he couldn’t pace the sideline or interact with the team the same way. Initially, Jackson was worried this would affect his coaching. In fact, sitting back on the sideline above the rest of the bench increased his authority. He learned how to assert himself without ever being overbearing the way he’d been in the past.
But to get these unexpected benefits we first have to accept the unexpected costs—even though we’d rather not have them in the first place.
Unfortunately, we are often too greedy to do this. We instinctively think about how much better we’d like any given situation to be. We start thinking about what we’d rather have. Rarely do we consider how much worse things could have been.
And things can always be worse. Not to be glib, but the next time you:
Remember, you could have lost a friend.
Lost that job?
What if you’d lost a limb?
Lost your house? You could have lost everything.
Yet we squirm and complain about what was taken from us. We still can’t appreciate what we have.
The hubris at the core of this notion that we can change everything is somewhat new. In a world where we can beam documents around the world in nanoseconds, chat in high- definition video with anyone anywhere, predict the weather down to the minute, it’s very easy to internalize the assumption that nature has been domesticated and submits to our whim. Of course it hasn’t.
People didn’t always think this way. The ancients (and the not so ancients) used the word fate far more frequently than
us because they were better acquainted with and exposed to how capricious and random the world could be. Events were considered to be the “will of the Gods.” The Fates were forces that shaped our lives and destinies, often not with much consent.
Letters used to be signed “Deo volente”—God willing. Because who knew what would happen?
Think of George Washington, putting everything he had into the American Revolution, and then saying, “The event is in the hand of God.” Or Eisenhower, writing to his wife on the eve of the Allied invasion at Sicily: “Everything we could think of have been done, the troops are fit everybody is doing his best. The answer is in the lap of the gods.” These were not guys prone to settling or leaving the details up to other people—but they understood ultimately that what happened would happen. And they’d go from there.
It’s time to be humble and flexible enough to acknowledge the same in our own lives. That there is always someone or something that could change the plan. And that person is not us. As the saying goes, “Man proposes but God disposes. ”
As fate would have it. Heaven forbid. Nature permitting. Murphy’s Law.
Whatever version you prefer, it’s all the same. Not that much has changed between their time and ours—they were just more cognizant of it.
Look: If we want to use the metaphor that life is a game, it means playing the dice or the chips or the cards where they fall. Play it where it lies, a golfer would say.
The way life is gives you plenty to work with, plenty to leave your imprint on. Taking people and events as they are is quite enough material already. Follow where the events take you, like water rolling down a hill—it always gets to the bottom eventually, doesn’t it?
Because (a) you’re robust and resilient enough to handle whatever occurs, (b) you can’t do anything about it anyway, and (c) you’re looking at a big-enough picture and long- enough time line that whatever you have to accept is still only a negligible blip on the way to your goal.
We’re indifferent and that’s not a weakness.
As Francis Bacon once said, nature, in order to be commanded, must be obeyed.
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.
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