Cultivating Your Inner Citadel

On the Perception of Adversity and Our Will to Face it

Max Frenzel
Aug 12, 2018 · 11 min read
Photo by Derek Story on Unsplash

“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.

“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.

“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.

“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.

  • Action: The creativity to overcome it
  • Will: Our determination to defeat difficulty

“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.

“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.

“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.

“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.

“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.

“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.

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.

“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.

“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.

“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.

“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.

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Max Frenzel

Written by

Things I’ve read, thoughts I’ve had. AI researcher by day, writer and music producer by night. Writing a book on the importance of Time Off:

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