The Obstacle Is The Way
I finished listening to The Obstacle is the Way: The Ancient Art of Turning Adversity to Advantage this morning, it’s been a good book to listen to over the last few days as I faced a new set of challenges with Stills Disease and finally got through them as I write this today. The book presents stoic philosophy in an actionable and approachable way, it’s read by it’s author Ryan Holiday, who is a pretty impressive guy.
The book provides a wide range of examples of famous, mostly successful people who used stoic philosophy to cope with the challenges that life has thrown at them. Of course when you use CEO’s, presidents, prime ministers and elite athletes as your examples you risk falling victim to the survivor bias, but I enjoyed and found the book useful none the less.
In order to help me internalise the lessons taught by the book I thought it would be useful to look back at how I faced down a few of the big challenges in my own life, one in each of the three big areas that the book covers.
- Perception, how I reframed the changes in my life resulting from the development of chronic health conditions
- Action, how I coped with a career threatening power struggle
- Will, how I pushed through a big disappointment at work, held things together and rebuilt
First up then, perhaps the most important of all the skills described in the book, the power of perception. You are not in control of your life, there are two many variables that are outside of your control. The only thing in life that is truly yours to control is how you react to events, your perception. You can choose to despair, or you can choose to reframe and move forward positively. Almost everything negative that happens in life contains some positive elements that you can focus on, put your energy into and use as the fuel to rebuild.
As I walked back to my car after a stressful day at work, I felt my arm start to tighten up, by the time I got to the car my shoulder and elbow were a blazing source of searing pain, when I woke up the next morning I could hardly move. This wasn’t the first time Still Disease had struck me down, but it was the tipping point that changed the course of my life. It was the time when I decided that my body was telling my mind that enough was enough. I could no longer cope with the rigours of international travel, mega company politics, multi-million dollar programmes, 60 hour weeks and all nighters. As I lay in bed that day I decided that I had to make a big change. At first I thought this was the end of my career, I started working from home, no longer a leader but a part-time junior worker bee. Gradually though I changed my perception in many ways:
I realised that I now had the time and gradually as I recovered a little, the energy to focus on rebuilding my physical health and mental resilience. I had the opportunity to fully engage in family life and to support my wife’s return to full time study and then work after shouldering most of the home making responsibilities for years. I realised that working only a few hours a week provided me a great insight into potential future working patterns. I invested in my productivity, research skills, collaboration and creative process to deliver as much as most full time workers.
After a few years I reframed my personal ambition, I let it go completely, replacing it with ambition only for my ideas. I became happy with others taking my ideas forward and taking credit for them. I put my energy into making other people successful instead of myself. I focussed on influence rather than authority.
I’m now at the point that I project a lifestyle that others are jealous of and most of the time I live that reality. Sometimes it’s still a challenge to get through the day and still feel grateful for the cards that life has thrown me, but compared to many who live with chronic illness I think that my decade long work on my perception has wrought real positive change in my life. By changing my perception, I gradually changed my reality.
In my early twenties, in my first management role I was presented with a great opportunity to provide a completely new IT environment for a hugely important project, staffed by a few hundred top engineers and software developers. I had developed a great solution for the team and as I walked towards a pivotal meeting on the project I was excited and nervous. As I sat down in the meeting room though I had my first ever experience of power politics. Another powerful part of the global organisation had mounted a takeover bid and I was overpowered by half a dozen much more senior people who commanded more resources and influence than I did, led by a very aggressive ‘Mr Big’.
I could have easily been paralysed in this meeting, but I was prepared, I had developed a solution that I believed in, Mr Big bought only his confidence, arrogance and standard boiler plate. I decided that the only way to act in this situation was in total service to the best interests of the customer. I would set aside risks and benefits to my career, turf wars over accountability, the mismatched resources and power.
Throughout a very challenging day I steadfastly brought the discussion back to the needs of the customer, forced Mr Big to confront the fact that the solution I was presented met those needs in a more flexible and lower cost way, readily incorporated new ideas into my solution when they had value, but defended my principles.
The customer sat quietly in the room, he had worked closely with Mr Big and his team for many years, but in the end he chose me, eventually he chose my solution as well. He realised that if he went with Mr Big he would get a solution that he could adapt to, if he chose me he would get a solution that was optimised to his needs, and he knew those needs would challenge all of us mightily.
I’m very proud of the success of that project and the IT we provided in support of it, but deep down I’m proudest of how I chose to act in the face of seemingly impossible odds to do the right thing for my customer.
Sometimes things just fall apart. I’d been working on a hugely ambitious, ground breaking programme for a major aerospace and defence company for a year. The customer loved the way the solution was shaping up, my team was winning awards, I’d setup a dedicated flexible working and collaboration focussed facility and a great team to work in it. Then the customers business stuttered, it had to chop back many projects, ‘mine’ was one of the casualties. I remember the meeting with my Vice President where he told me the bad news, that we had to decommission immediately.
He gave me a few minutes to internalise the impact. As I forced myself to adapt to this new reality, I worked up confidence to tell him no. I asked him to give me a month, to trust me, to keep the team together. Let me turn this into an opportunity. As I walked back to my office I was buzzing, all of a sudden I had a great team with nothing for them to do, unfettered creativity was called for.
A month later and 95% of the team were still together, pushing forward with great energy on a wide range of new opportunities, several for that same customer. We captured much of the earlier work we had done and re-used it for many years. We successfully kept most of the project alive for the US division of the company and we gradually delivered most of the rest globally in a more flexible, less monolithic way, with more creative commercials.
Force of will kept those 50 people together as a high performance team, who went on to deliver many millions of revenue. It was force of will that stopped the disintegration, that kept people motivated every day as we fought our way back from zero to fully funded. It was force of will that convinced a bruised VP to invest in failure, to give me the time and money to mould it into success.
For brevity I’ve had to simplify these stories a little
The photo is of Scarborough beach where I spent the last week. I pounded that beach challenging, stretching and strengthening my painful legs, working on my searing shoulder pain and easing the mind crazing itchy rash that covered half my body. As I eased my swollen ankles and knees paddling in the cold sea I focussed on how lucky I was to be facing these challenges in such a glorious place, walking with my wife.