Cultivating Your Inner Citadel
On the Perception of Adversity and Our Will to Face it
“No man more unhappy than he who never faces adversity. For he is not permitted to prove himself.” — Seneca
When faced with adversity of any kind, be it an annoying colleague or something as serious as the loss of a loved one, the common reaction is some combination of anger, fear, disbelief, sorrow, confusion and helplessness.
We blame others or our environment for the misfortunes that befall us. But the only thing that really causes us pain and stands in our way is our own perception and approach to the problem.
This is one of the core observations of Stoic philosophy.
“It is our attitude toward events, not events themselves, which we can control. Nothing is by its own nature calamitous — even death is terrible only if we fear it.” — Epictetus
Ryan Holiday addresses this same notion in his book The Obstacle Is The Way, and develops the idea in a modern setting.
Rather than being stunned by obstacles and suffering from them, we can actually turn them into opportunities for growth and forward momentum. All we need is the right approach, the right kind of personal philosophy.
“Our actions may be impeded […] but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purpose the obstacle for our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way” — Marcus Aurelius
The goal is to first change our perception of obstacles, not letting them disturb us, and then turning them around and using them to our advantage.
This is much more than just positive thinking. Obstacles make us work harder, look for shortcuts or weak spots, find new allies, identify rules that may be bent, and much more.
Being put in a tight spot unleashes our full creativity, if we approach it right.
“Bad companies are destroyed by crisis. Good companies survive them. Great companies are improved by them.” — Andy Grove (former Intel CEO)
This is reminiscent of the results found by modern research on skill acquisition. A good example are the studies reported on by psychologist Anders Ericsson in his book Peak — Secretes from the New Science of Expertise. All the studies show that the key to expert performance is constantly putting yourself in uncomfortable and challenging situations beyond your current abilities.
While top-level performers (and those aspiring to that level) deliberately put themselves into very specific adverse situations designed to maximize improvements, treating all the obstacles we face every day with this kind of mindset can turn our entire life into a single expert performance.
As Holiday points out, there are three critical components to the process of turning obstacles into opportunities.
- Perception: Our attitude towards the problem
- Action: The creativity to overcome it
- Will: Our determination to defeat difficulty
Or in the original words of one of the great Stoics:
“Objective judgement, now at this very moment. Unselfish action, now at this very moment. Willing acceptance, now at this very moment, of all external events. That’s all you need.” — Marcus Aurelius
In the following I want to focus mainly on the points of perception and will.
Our Attitude Towards Adversity
The first step on the way to facing obstacles is training ourselves not to be subjective and reactive, but to have a calm and imperturbable mind instead.
Stoicism is often mistakenly associated with a lack of emotion. But being emotional is absolutely fine. It’s part of what makes us human. However, the problems start to arise when we react emotional.
While being aware of our emotions, we must not let them blindly guide our response or cloud our objective judgement of a situation.
The aim is control and domestication of emotion, not absence of emotion.
When faced with an obstacle we should steady our nerves, revert to the present moment instead of having our mind race through all sorts of possible (or impossible) future scenarios, and focus on what lies within our control. Only then can we approach the situation undisturbed and see it for what it really is, which in many cases is not as bad as we imagined.
There is a big but often under-appreciated difference between observing and perceiving. One is objective and external, the other subjective and internal. Our aim is to reduce the gap between the two, making our perception more objective.
When we give others advice we are generally much more objective than with ourselves. We should try to cultivate the same perspective when evaluating our own situation.
While our physical actions may be restricted, we can never be forced to surrender our attitude, believes and choices. Nelson Mandela’s time in prison but with an unbroken attitude is a perfect examples of this.
It is in our control. We decide how circumstances affect us. No one else has the right or power to do that.
“Choose not to be harmed — and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed, and you haven’t been.” — Marcus Aurelius
Panic or anger only lead to mistakes and blind reactivity. Instead, recognize the power to freely choose your response to any given situation. The goal is to solve problems, not to react to them.
This comes easier to us the more we practice. Being comfortable with discomfort, familiar with uncertainty and fear, make it much easier to respond in a calm manner.
Frequent exposure to discomfort is a useful practice. Many famous Stoics, despite being rich and powerful, deliberately lived a rough and simple live on certain days or weeks, teaching themselves not to fear discomfort.
But more then simply getting used to discomfort, we can actually use discomfort as a guide. In The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, as well as Seth Godin’s Linchpin, both authors call the internal force that tries to stop us when we are about to do something great, which in many cases is something uncomfortable, our Resistance. Further, they suggest to use Resistance as a compass. Whenever we experience this discomfort it tells us we are on the path towards greatness.
In essence: Do what feels most uncomfortable, that’s where the most growth is happening. The obstacle becomes the way.
“A good person dyes events with his own color […] and turns whatever happens to his own benefit.” — Seneca
Many obstacles actually contain hidden opportunities or valuable lessons. The skill is to take any obstacle and flip it around, turning negatives into positives.
All of this comes down to our attitude towards adversity. Problems are often precisely as bad as we think, because we naturally make them big.
“I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.“ — Mark Twain
Recognize and then exercise your power to influence your perception. Calmly evaluate the situation and then focus precisely on that which is in your control and ignore everything else.
“In life our first job is this, to divide and distinguish things into two categories: externals I cannot control, but the choices I make with regard to them I do control. Where will I find good and bad? In me, in my choices.” — Epictetus
Once we have determined what is within our control, it is time for action.
Ultimately the only thing that helps us overcome an obstacle is action.
“The cucumber is bitter? Then throw it out. There are brambles in the path? Then go around. That’s all you need to know” — Marcus Aurelius
However instead of acting, we usually default to reacting.
We subconsciously choose anger and self-pity. And while most of us don’t treat it as such, this is a choice. It is not an easy choice, but it’s a choice that allows us to transform adversity into opportunity.
“You never want serious crisis to go to waste. Things that we had postponed for too long, that were long term, are now immediate and must be dealt with. [A] crisis provides the opportunity for us to do things that could not be done before.” — Rahm Emanuel (former Obama adviser)
A full discussion of how to take the right action deserves it’s own treatment. Here I want to focus on the internal aspects of perception and will instead.
Just note that even if the action you take doesn’t lead to the desired outcome, when nothing works, we can still use this as an opportunity to learn to accept bad things and practice humility. Another chance to get more comfortable with discomfort.
Will and Our Inner Citadel
“True will is quiet, humility, resilience, and flexibility.” — Ryan Holiday
Abraham Lincoln is remembered as one of the greatest presidents in US history, having been a masterful orator and largely responsible for the abolition of slavery.
What most people don’t know is that Lincoln also suffered from severe depression his entire life. It is said that one of his favorite sayings, which he would repeat to himself during darker periods, was “This too shall pass.”
This simple little quote can be applied in essentially any situation. Obviously in bad moments it gives hope and reminds us that no matter how bad the current situation may be, it is not permanent. But equally in good times it is a powerful reminder to fully appreciate the present moment and not take it for granted.
“In the meantime, cling tooth and nail to the following rule: not to give in to adversity, not to trust prosperity, and always take full note of fortune’s habit of behaving just as she pleases.” — Seneca
While attitude and action are mainly concerned with individual events, will concerns the long game.
“Persistance is an action. Perseverance is a matter of will. One is energy, The other, endurance.” — Ryan Holiday
The Stoics had a concept they referred to as the Inner Citadel. It is the fortress within us that nothing from the outside can perturb. It is a trait that sets many great leaders apart from the rest.
Crucially, it is not there from the beginning. No one is born with an Inner Citadel. We have to build it and constantly reinforce it. It is a concept that can be learned.
This is what many people get wrong. They’d rather believe that others are simply born with innate talents and resilience, while they themselves are stuck with their particular weaknesses and that’s it.
But some few tirelessly work to overcome and eliminate those weaknesses, and ultimately turn them into strength. Lincoln’s depression is an excellent example. Another example from American history is Theodore Roosevelt, who was born an extremely sickly child but turned this around to become a symbol of powerful masculinity and leadership.
“We must all either wear out or rust out, every one of us. My choice is to wear out.” — Theodore Roosevelt
Besides constantly reminding ourselves of the ideas above, there are various techniques that can be used in order to solidify our Inner Citadel.
One such technique is what Stoics call premeditatio malorum, the premeditation of evils. In essence the idea is to anticipate failure in a given endeavor and then run through what that would mean and how it could be fixed.
In business, post-mortem analyses are a common practice when projects conclude. This is essentially the opposite, a pre-mortem. Many things fail for preventable reasons, and often we also have no backup plans and get caught off guard by failure, because we never imagined our perfect plan could fail.
A pre-mortem allows us to worry less, as well as be prepared in case things do go wrong.
“Prepared for failure, ready for success.” — Ryan Holiday
A very closely related technique is negative visualization, something Jason Fried recently discussed in an interview with Tim Ferriss. Many times we are paralyzed by chronic and persistent worrying. The goal here is to get all the worrying out of the way in one go and then be free to move on without that nagging distraction.
This is done by imagining the very worst possible scenarios. When doing so, we often realize that the consequences might not be as fatal as we had imagined. And we see that anything that is actually likely to happen will probably be far less bad than these worst case scenarios.
We basically want to set aside some limited time for worrying, and then be done with it.
This again brings us back to the heart of Stoicism, the art of acquiescence: If something is outside of your control, there is no point worrying about it. Just accept it and move on.
This is not giving up! It’s focusing on things we can actually influence and not being distracted by useless anger or fear or trying to change the unchangeable.
The fact that I have included the technique of negative visualization is in itself a result of adversity.
As I am writing this, I am traveling around Hokkaido, the northernmost island of Japan. The area around Tokyo was just hit by a typhoon, leading to many cancelled flights, and overfilled trains as a result.
I was planning to work on this piece while on a train from Hakodate to Sapporo, but the train was so full that no seats were available, and even the standing space got uncomfortably crowded. So I had to stand for the entire journey lasting almost four hours, cramped in between other travelers, barely able to move.
I could have been angry, as many fellow travelers visually were, that I payed the equivalent of about $80 for this miserable experience. I could have been frustrated that I couldn’t take out my laptop and write. I could have wallowed in self-pity that I had to spend my well-deserved holiday dealing with such an annoyance.
But it wouldn’t have magically provided me with a seat or more space. In fact, it would have just made the trip even more miserable. The more I would have focused on the discomfort, the more I would have experienced it.
Instead I put on my headphones and listened to the interview between Jason Fried and Tim Ferriss, during which by chance they talked about many related ideas, including the technique of negative visualization.
An obstacle suddenly became an unexpected opportunity to improve this story.
Going even one step further than simply accepting the unchangeable is to cheerfully embrace it, a concept known as amor fati, the love of fate.
“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it… but love it!” — Friedrich Nietzsche
Jocko Willink, former Navy Seal commander, leadership coach, and author of Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy Seals Lead and Win fully embraces this concept. Whenever he (or someone under his leadership) faces a problem, his response is always the same: “Good!”
“When things are going bad, there is gonna be some good that’s gonna come from it. […] Got beaten? Good. You learned. […] We have the opportunity to figure out a solution.” — Jocko Willink
Looking back at my own life I can think of quite a number of situations that at the time seemed like failure or misfortune, but in the end turned out to set the path for later success. I really recommend doing this kind of retrospective. It puts “failure” in perspective.
Maybe the most perfect example of amor fati was Thomas Edison’s reaction when he heard about a blaze destroying his research facilities, and years of research documents contained in them, a damage that would later be estimated at over $20 million in today’s dollars. Edison turned to his son and said “Go get your mother and call her friends. They’ll never see a fire like this one again.” Noticing his son’s panic and disbelief he continued “It’s all right, We’ve just got rid of a lot of rubbish.”
This was the perfect response. From the outside laughing or being cheerful in the face of disaster might be seen as crazy, but if you think about it objectively, what better response could there be? Weeping wouldn’t have accomplished a single thing. Panic or anger wouldn’t have avoided the disaster.
Instead enjoy the spectacle and calmly get ready to deal with the inevitable.
Cheerfulness is forward looking, preparing for action with a positive spirit.
Edison clearly had carefully constructed his Inner Citadel. Now it’s our turn to transform obstacles into ways towards greatness. It’s just a matter of objective perception, calm but deliberate action, and an unbendable will. All abilities that can be learned if we decide to do so. The choice is ours.