Book Reviews

Wednesday 30 July 2014

Got a problem? Stiffen your lip and. . . carry on

Edel Coffey

Published 09/07/2014|02:30

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Aurelius's Meditations adorn many a bathroom bookshelf and bedside table, including Barack Obama’s and Elle Macpherson’s.
Firm believer: Natasha Fennell thinks resilience is key
Stoic founder: Marcus Aurelius.

We tend to think of self-help books as a 20th Century phenomenon, but Marcus Aurelius wrote his famous Meditations in the first century AD. The Roman emperor and philosopher knew a thing or two about stoicism – most of his diaries were composed on the battlefield.

Marcus Aurelius wrote a book about stoicism 2,000 years ago, So why is it suddenly back in vogue, asks Edel Coffey

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2,000 years later, Aurelius's Meditations adorn many a bathroom bookshelf and bedside table, including Barack Obama's and Elle Macpherson's. Meanwhile, Bill Clinton claims to read it once a year. Now they have been rebooted for the social networking generation by a 27-year-old college dropout who is living proof that you can turn obstacles into triumph with the right attitude.

Stoicism is wildly old-fashioned as a character trait, but in post-recession Ireland there is something admirable about the stoic approach of gritting your teeth and getting on with it. When faced with adversity or obstacles, the solution in the Noughties was to throw money at the problem.

Now, however, Ryan Holiday's modern interpretation of Aurelius's meditations, The Obstacle Is The Way, is showing us how to knuckle down and make something of ourselves with old-fashioned traits like thrift, determination, courage and persistence. Holiday describes Meditations as the definitive text on self-discipline, personal ethics, humility, self-actualisation and strength. "If you read it and aren't profoundly changed by it, it's probably because, as Aurelius says, 'what doesn't transmit light creates its own darkness'."

Holiday first came across Aurelius's book when it was recommended to him by a sex therapist who gave a talk at his college. After reading the book, he began blogging about stoicism, which brought him to the attention of a Hollywood talent agency. They offered him an internship, which gave him access to powerful people, and after that job ended he started working on marketing campaigns for global brands such American Apparel. He eventually became their director of marketing, working alongside Dov Charney, the CEO who was fired by the company after allegations of sexual misconduct were made against him. Charney has denied the claims and is expected to counter-sue for wrongful termination. But it was when Holiday was working as a researcher for self-help guru Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power, that he had a lightbulb moment.

He had to read a series of philosophical books to add ballast to Greene's self-help theories and, in doing so, he found inspiration to write his own self-help book.

The result is The Obstacle Is The Way, which follows the old Zen saying that within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve our condition. Taking a problem and turning it into a challenge is the kind of positive thinking that can grate but there's nothing soppy about stoicism.

The philosopher and writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb defined a stoic as someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into transformation, mistakes into initiation and desire into undertaking.

Nor is Holiday's book in any way the sort of vague self-help we're used to reading. It's a tough-love motivator that tells you to get a hold of your emotions and to start thinking clearly about your problems and taking precise actions.

Think of the single-mindedness often seen in artists or musicians. The self-belief in their own goals and the determination to achieve them overcomes all obstacles. Holiday says that our perceptions determine, to an incredibly large degree, what we are and are not capable of. "In many ways they determine reality itself.

When we believe in the obstacle more than the goal, which will inevitably triumph?" The book has three main tenets. First, see clearly. Next, act correctly. Finally, endure and accept the world as it is.

It all sounds simple in theory, but what about in practice?

Natasha Fennell is director of Stillwater Communications and runs a workshop called The Art Of Confidence. She knows a thing or two about resilience, having suffered the overnight loss of two accounts in her communications company as the recession hit.

"We had to let one person go, which was devastating for a small company like ours." But within that obstacle was a chance to improve the company's condition. "We re-examined and reviewed our business and realised we would have to rely more on the private sector. We're a bilingual company, so we expanded the Irish-language element of our business." That worked for a while but as government funding cuts started to take effect in the Irish language sector, they had to adapt yet again.

"Resilience is the new way post-boom," says Natasha. "Stoicism is refreshing in Ireland right now. Throughout evolution we've always had to show stoicism – in famine, in wars."

And, she says, there is something empowering about coming through adversity. It's almost as if overcoming each new difficult experience gives us renewed resilience. "You think, well, I managed to get through that before," says Fennell. "It gives us a great sense that we can come through tough times."

And indeed there is something energising about Holiday's attitude of putting your head down until you get the job done. "The saying is adapt or die and stoicism is all about taking the hits and learning from it," says Fennell. "My art of confidence workshop was built around adapting, trying to be resilient, looking for ways to refocus."

The kernel of stoicism is just getting on with it. "It's like climbing up a hill," says Fennell. "You might be halfway up and feel like you can't go on but at that point it would take as much energy to go back down as to go on ... so you might as well keep going."

The Obstacle Is The Way is published by Profile Books.

The Art of Stoicism

Be disciplined

Retain objectivity. Rockefeller had the strength to resist temptation or excitement when making big decisions and knew not to get carried away by the crowd when it came to investing.

Switch your perception

Turn bad news into something positive. See mistakes as an opportunity to learn. Change the story you tell yourself.

Steady your nerves

Stay calm and in control. Don’t get worked up. Steel yourself so that you can shake off the bad stuff as it happens and soldier on.

Control your emotions

Don’t panic. When you panic, you forget protocols and ignore rules and make mistakes. The only way to survive or overcome obstacles is to keep emotions in check. Ask yourself, do I need to freak out about this? And answer yourself as an astronaut or a doctor might... by saying no.

Practise objectivity

Before making any judgments try pretending that your situation is happening to someone else and analyse it from that distance.

Is it up to you?

Learn the difference between what you do and don’t have control over. The Serenity Prayer is worth bearing in mind: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

Live in the present moment

Focus on the moment, not the monsters that may or may not be up ahead.

Think differently

Often entrepreneurs come up with great ideas when they are in a state of nothing left to lose. Obstacles can illuminate new options.

Prepare to act

See the situation clearly and act correctly. And finally, endure and accept the world as it is.

Irish Independent

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