I recently finished Ryan Holiday’s “The Obstacle Is the Way,” a very popular self-help book about modern stoicism, and I’m scratching my head. It’s a good book — I highlighted many passages that seemed written expressly for me — but I disagree with the premise.
The author seems to say that the path to success requires us to bypass emotions. In fact, he says, hardships should be greeted with a smile as they can always be turned into opportunities.
“Obstacles make us emotional, but the only way we’ll survive or overcome them is by keeping those emotions in check — if we can keep steady no matter what happens, no matter how much external events may fluctuate.”
The Obstacle Is the Way
Have an emotional response? “So go ahead, feel it,” Holiday writes. “Just don’t lie to yourself by conflating emoting about a problem and dealing with it. Because they are as different as sleeping and waking.”
Good Ideas Aren’t Always Good Advice
Holiday makes useful observations, but I think, on the whole, stoicism is a terrible operating system. My concern is that stoicism is too simplistic to be applied in many situations. Emotions don’t have an on-and-off switch, and human struggles are not mathematical equations. Deciding on a course of action can be messy, and there are better tools than stoicism for moving forward in complicated circumstances.
In its absolute form, stoicism is a terrible operating system for people, with the possible exception of Vulcans. I’m sure that stoicism has some nuances — its defenders will most likely say it doesn’t dismiss emotion — but my takeaway from the book is that emotion is always on the back burner. And that burner is turned off. And it’s probably in a different kitchen. The point I’m trying to make is that emotion might be there, but not in any meaningful or helpful way.
I Think CBT Is a Better Framework
I think the techniques espoused by Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) are healthier and more useful ways to approach life. CBT doesn’t tell people to turn off their emotions. Instead, it provides tools for defusing unhelpful thoughts and converting them into helpful ones.
Admittedly, the end result in some cases might be the same one reached through stoicism — but the journey to the destination is more realistic. And Holiday offers a few tips that are similar to CBT: “How we approach, view, and contextualize an obstacle, and what we tell ourselves it means, determines how daunting and trying it will be to overcome.”
I have written about CBT before, so there’s no need to repeat myself. The main difference between CBT and stoicism is that CBT tells us to acknowledge our emotions and reframe them in a helpful way. In contrast, stoicism essentially tells us to ignore our feelings. With CBT, you can reconceptualize thoughts and use them in your decision-making processes. That’s verboten in stoicism.
Holiday writes “Every obstacle is unique to each of us. But the responses they elicit are the same: Fear. Frustration. Confusion. Helplessness. Depression. Anger.”
The stoic approach is to tamp down these emotions. The CBT approach is to analyze these emotions and transform them into constructive, clearheaded ideas.
Life Can Suck
There are many things in life that just suck, for lack of a better word: Being thrown out of the house because you’re gay. Losing a family member. Losing a job and not being able to take care of your family. Processing our feelings at these inflection points lets us grow as individuals and develop our emotional intelligence. And not all emotions are negative — many are positive, helpful, and bring us happiness. Feelings, on the whole, are an asset, not a liability.1
Nonetheless, There Are Things Learn from Stoicism
I don’t want to entirely dismiss “The Obstacle Is the Way.” As I said, some truly solid advice emerges as Holiday explores stoic ideas. One that stands out to me is this:
“The path of least resistance is a terrible teacher.”
The Obstacle Is the Way
I agree with this 100%, as there are times that I have taken the path of least resistance and learned nothing. This statement rings true, and Holiday gets an A+ for condensing such a complicated issue in such a succinct statement.
Other excerpts that resonated with me:
“Think progress, not perfection.”
“True will is quiet humility, resilience, and flexibility.”
“If you want momentum, you’ll have to create it yourself, right now, by getting up and getting started.”
There are a lot of good takeaways like these from Holiday’s introduction to modern-world stoicism, but I’m not buying all of what he’s selling. There’s more to be gained from acknowledging your emotional thoughts and reassessing them than from compartmentalizing them and ignoring them.
_____ 1 Don’t take my word for it! Watch “Inside Out” on Disney+ to see emotions in action.
When our MLK weekend plans fell through, the Complimentary Spouse and I called an audible and booked a last-minute trip to Philadelphia. Not only would it give us a chance to catch up with good friends, but also the opportunity to scarf down as many cheesesteaks as possible in 48 hours.
So, how many cheesesteaks did we eat? Three. I know you’re dying to know all about them, so keep reading.
A Trip to Fishtown
On Saturday, we got together with our friends Chris and Ashley. We met them several years ago in, of all places, a microbrewery in Reykjavik and bonded immediately because Chris, Ashley, and Britt all come from Alabama.
After doing a few touristy things1 and catching up over (many) drinks, Chris and Ashley took us to Joe’s Steaks & Soda Shop in the Fishtown neighborhood. Britt and I shared a traditional cheesesteak with provolone. It was everything a cheesesteak should be: warm, melty, and comforting. The waitress brought some pickles to the table, so I tried a few on my cheesesteak for some zing and texture. I wasn’t disappointed.
Britt ordered a regular cheesesteak, but I opted for a special called the Franklin which tweaks the traditional recipe by adding cream cheese. (I assume it’s Philadelphia cream cheese because, well, you know, it’s Philadelphia.) The cream cheese paired well with the provolone and provided a little extra zip and creaminess. Britt and I felt our cheesesteaks were worth the long wait in line and the hassle of finding seating.
A Cheesesteak Before Leaving
We ate our third cheesesteak on Monday. We arrived at the airport a little early, and there was a place called Chickie’s & Pete’s near our gate. We saw cheesesteaks on the menu and decided to split one more on the way out of town.
Airport food is always a crapshoot, but this cheesesteak was pretty good. It ranked behind the other two we ate on our trip, but it was better than anything you’d find here in Florida. It ticked all the boxes: flavorful beef, melted provolone, soft bread that didn’t fall apart. I have no complaints.
Every Philly Cheesesteak Is a Winner
Cheesesteaks in Philadelphia are a work of art. In other cities, cheesesteaks are hit and miss — sometimes you’ll find an OK one, but usually the meat-to-cheese ratio is off, or the bread falls apart, or the sandwich is too thick. In Philadelphia, they nail it every time. They take a few simple ingredients and transform them into comfort and delight. I get the feeling that making a cheesesteak in Philadelphia isn’t just a job — it’s a source of civic pride.
Philadelphia, keep your grills hot. We’ll be back soon and, when we do, we’ll be ready to eat every cheesesteak we see.
____ 1 Is there anything more touristy than this photo?
What is Dave wearing today? Would you believe Dave is wearing a polo shirt and shorts? He’s getting pretty predictable.
What is making Dave happy today? Dave and the Complimentary Spouse started watching “What We Do in the Shadows” tonight. Dave saw the original movie (set in Wellington) several years ago with his dad, and he’s enjoying the American teevee version (set in Staten Island) so far. Clever premise + dry humor = happy Dave.
What is Dave’s inspirational thought for the day? Dave came across this passage today:
The thing standing in your way isn’t going anywhere. You’re not going to outthink it or outcreate it with some world-changing epiphany.
“The Obstacle Is the Way” by Ryan Holiday
What is Dave planning to do tonight? Dave intends to stay up past his bedtime to watch one of his favorite comedians, Jackie Kashian, perform an online show. I love Jackie’s smart, unapologetically dorky observations about issues as varied as pop culture, sex, and the Armenian genocide. Here’s her last special:
Is there a song stuck in Dave’s head right now? Dave wants to talk to Weird Al about writing a song called Livin’ la Vida Covid.
Negative, Negative, Positive
I started feeling symptoms on Tuesday evening and took an at-home test. It was negative. The symptoms got worse overnight — I barely slept — so I drove to a testing center at 7 a.m. the next morning. The line was long and it took about 45 minutes to get my test.2
I didn’t mind waiting in line at Al Lopez Park. The weather was pleasant and the park was beautiful. Some of the trees had lost their leaves. See? We do experience Autumn in Florida — but it comes in January and only lasts a few weeks.
I got my results about an hour after I got home: negative.
Since I still didn’t feel well, Britt encouraged me to go to the local MinuteClinic. With Covid ruled out, I suspected I had a sinus infection and the staff there could prescribe me antibiotics. After a quick examination, they suggested I take another Covid test. That one came up positive.
“Hold on,” I said. “What if the negative test this morning was correct and the positive test this morning was not?” The nurse practitioner said that was unlikely for two reasons. First, false negatives are more common than false positives. Second, because my symptoms appeared the previous day, it’s possible that there wasn’t enough of the virus in my system yet to trigger a positive result in the morning.
Science Is Real
When I started telling people about my Covid test results, my eminently wise friend Mike reminded me that I need to be careful about what it means to have a breakthrough case. The fact that I have Covid does not mean vaccines don’t work. Vaccines do more than protect against infection — they lessen the severity of symptoms if an infection does occur.3 Accordingly, instead of being in the hospital, I’m at home watching Golden Girls reruns, forcing Britt to wait on me hand and foot, and dealing with mild symptoms. All in all, that’s not too bad. The vaccine works. Without it, I’m sure things would be much worse. Science is real.
I’m sure I’ll be up and running in no time. Till then, you’ll find me cuddling with the doggos on the sofa.
_____ 1 OK, so no one is dying to ask me any of these questions. Hyperbole, like science, is real. 2 Maybe it was closer to an hour. Can you really keep track of time when you’re listening to Madonna on your AirPods? 3 Don’t come for me unless you’re an infectious disease expert. Science, like hyperbole, is real.