The way we choose to see, act and be is what our world becomes.
This is the underlying truth of Stoicism that seem to be popping up across newspaper outlets, an ancient philosophy and practice that great many leaders of our time and of the past have practiced.
If you think it sounds too soft or like a quick fix that’s just about changing perspectives, people like Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Marcus Aurelius all followed this practice as part of their leadership practice and way of thinking and being.
But as with everything else, you can only excel if you keep up the practice as The Obstacle is The Way teaches us.
Developing a practice of being better
Becoming a better listener, a better and more patient parent or colleague, that all takes daily practice that includes both successes and failures.
Some days you will feel like nothing is working, you make those mistakes that you decided yesterday or even in the morning you would not do.
And that is ok.
Learning to be a better human is a blend of gratitude, self-love and patience; all of which cannot and will not be magically inserted into your thoughts or behaviour just because you think those are cool ideals.
But learning is not about repeating the same mistakes but going forward:
“Perceive things as they are, leave no option unexplored, then stand strong and transform whatever can’t be changed. And they all feed into one another: Our actions give us the confidence to ignore or control our perceptions. We prove and support our will with our actions” (p. 179).
Learning is often a painful process as it requires acceptance of our limited skills and capabilities, accepting that we are not as skilled yet as we thought, and reminding ourselves that even the smallest step is a step forward.
Yet, for any thought or behaviour to change, we must commit and actually practice those thoughts:
“We must practice these maxims, rolling them over and over in our minds and acting on them until they become muscle memory” (p. 179)
Great leaders don’t always know what is going to happen, but they develop a solid practice that is really a mix of mental toughness, adaptability, and ability to see what others don’t.
Their mindset is vastly different from many because they know that “Passing one obstacle simply says you’re worth of more” (p. 173).
For most of us this sounds crazy, why would you want more obstacles in your life as you are barely surviving with the current ones?
But this is about a shift in perspective, a mindset of practice, because difficulties, obstacles, challenges, they will always come.
Catching our minds through reflection
I certainly have struggled the past weeks and somehow staying at home magnifies obstacles at least for me when much of the external support network and activities that made my life manageable are suddenly stripped off.
Many parents I have spoken with during this lockdown say most days are a solid mix of “I’ve got this” and tearing up with the challenges and obstacles: trying to keep the house in order while providing the best learning environment for our children and keep up their spirits while trying to also work full time if we still have a job.
But I have to say that going through this lockdown has also exposed at least for me that some obstacles I thought I had in my life are turning out to be more of a matter of perspective than actual reality.
For example, as a single parent working full time, I have kept complaining that my biggest obstacle for not exercising consistently is that I just don’t have enough time.
Yet now with all yoga, pilates, strength training and dance classes suddenly online, live streaming or recordings or on apps, I have more access for a world of exercise than before… if I choose to.
The obstacle of “not having enough time” is actually about my choices and priorities and ultimately about my perspective.
Because I can do a 20-minute workout before dinner if I choose so.
And I am starting to choose to do that because that is the kind of person I want to be.
Moving from mindset to practice
Developing a new practice requires a new mindset, but it also involves action and will; constant commitment to practice and the ideals that you have set out for your life.
Much of this has to do with perseverance so not just keeping going when faced with a challenge but keeping going through all of the challenges:
“If persistence is about attempting to solve some difficult problem with dogged determination and hammering until the break occurs, then plenty of people can be said to be persistent. But perseverance is something larger. It’s the long game. It’s about what happens not just in round one but in round two and every round after- and then the fight after that and fight after that, until the end” (p. 157).
It is easier to give up than endure, easier to choose the least difficult option rather than trying to figure out whether we need to change the path.
In some cases we have already tried everything and might need to totally reconfigure what our lives can, should and could look like.
But most importantly, we have to keep going.
Not necessarily in the old way that we have always done things, but recognising the need for change, and finding the most effective strategies in moving us forward.
Creating new thoughts, new practice, and acting on those consistently is what can sustain us especially in this time of uncertainty that we are all facing.