Nonfiction, What Shannon Read

A business-y business man reads Marcus Aurelius and applies it to business and maybe life a little bit?

Hmm. May have just summed up my entire review for you in my title. 😉

My tone probably tells you what I thought of The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph by Ryan Holiday.

Normally, I avoid books like this. I don’t like reading books by business-y business men who want to tell me how it is. In fact, I’m kind of over men telling me how it is in general.

However, I recently developed an interest in stoicism. I’ve hounded r/stoicism on reddit, begun reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and am particularly interested in how the ideas of stoicism can be applied to struggles with addictions.

bust of Marcus Aurelius – that beard tho

If you know me personally, you know I struggle with my own demons and am no stranger to the self-help genre. Always looking for a gem.

I’d come across Holiday’s book in a few places and thought, nah, not for me. It sounded a little like How to Win Friends and Influence People for the social media age.

But then I read Seth Blais’ post on Daily Stoic How Stoicism Saved My Life: My Story of Battling Addiction. It was interesting and I hopped over to his blog where he talks quite a lot about stoicism and addiction. And he recommends The Obstacle is the Way enthusiastically.

So I thought maybe I should give it a chance.

Welp. It read a lot like Rachel Hollis’ Girl, Wash Your Face, which a load of schlock geared toward women and MLM-ers.

The Obstacle contained whole lot of why and “you should” and not a lot of how.

Basically a cheerleader for capitalism, Holiday spends the book trying to relate basic ideas of stoicism to getting ahead in business, which amounted to: do better, work harder, work longer hours, push through, have a better attitude.

He lauds the stick-to-it-iveness of Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, which I find basic and tiring. I mean, are you allowed to write a book about business that doesn’t mention those two rags-to-riches stories? Maybe there is a fine for that or something.

Holiday surrounds such examples with directives like, “Focus on the moment, not the monsters that may or may not be up ahead.”

And “Where the head goes, the body follows. Perception precedes action. Right action follows the right perspective.”

And “It’s okay to be discouraged. It’s not okay to quit. To know you want to quit but to plant your feet and keep inching closer until you take the impenetrable fortress you’ve decided to lay siege to in your own life—that’s persistence.”

What is the right action? What is the right perspective? HOW do you persist?

Well, Holiday remains vague on those points. But whatever it is you think you should do, you should definitely do it. Just do it. DOOO IIIT.

Now, is there merit in changing your attitude around obstacles? Absolutely. Holiday’s overall point, as far as I could tell by reading in between the lines of Tweet-able maxims, is that sometimes we tell ourselves a scary story about the challenges we face in life and that makes them seem insurmountable. We say we can’t when in fact we can.

But that seems to be Holiday’s entire point. Because he doesn’t elaborate. He read Meditations, drew a connection to his own capitalist-centric values (work harder! faster! better! focus!), and wrote a book for other capitalists about how to stay the course. Stoicism is just the intellectual lipstick on the capitalist pig.

Bit on the nose there, sorry. 😉

I also chuckled at his fangirl-ing around Marcus Aurelius.

If you’re willing to stick with me this far, here’s a passage where Holiday introduces the title concept of the book and tells us a little bit about our good friend the Roman conqueror/philosopher.

I don’t know that our man is all that familiar with the history of the Roman Empire.

It’s complicated, but Marcus Aurelius, like Roman emperors before him was a conqueror. He worked to expand his empire, which means, you guessed it, war with people who, from the looks of it, didn’t really care for being conquered.

Did you see the movie Gladiator? That war in the beginning where the Romans are battling the people of Germania? Same guy.

Richard Harris as Marcus Aurelius in Gladiator (2000)

To say that a conqueror’s power “never went to his head” is, uh, speculative, reductive, and a little clueless-sounding maybe?

But here we are in the golden age of the internet and the director of marketing at American Apparel can paint his heroes however he wants I guess.

Is there anything I liked about this book? Yes, that central point, which is a point Marcus Aurelius makes in his Meditations. Basically and in my own words: Sometimes we tell ourselves a story about how scary something is to make it seem like we can’t do something. It gives us an out. “Nope, too scary, too anxiety-provoking, can’t do it.”

Better to realize and acknowledge when we are doing that so we can then decide whether to believe that story or to operate outside of it in order to get what we want/need. Whether that’s success at work (Holiday) or world domination (Marcus Aurelius).

But the book didn’t illuminate anything about stoicism for me. Instead, it seemed to promote the wrong and pervasive idea that stoicism is the philosophy of “keeping a stiff upper lip.”

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