Obstacles and Growth
A few weeks ago, I hit a major personal obstacle. I hit obstacles all of the time — as does everyone, might I add — but this one was particularly important. I had encountered a position where I had to choose between sticking with my principles and giving into outside pressure. In the end, I chose the most difficult option: staying in compliance with my principles. As I reflect over the situation, I realize that doing the most difficult thing was the best thing for me to do in that situation. Not only did my decision improve my long-term prospects and make me feel more ethical, but facing the obstacle also made me take a step back to reflect on my life. Most of us believe that the best way to learn is to read the works of others — to read books, watch lectures, consume essays, et cetera. But I think that most of us become so focused on consuming information that we forget about one of the best sources of knowledge: our own minds.
The Easy Path
One key tenet of Stoicism is the fact that we should not always try to pursue the easy path in any given situation. Stoics believe that obstacles are a critical part of human nature, and if approached correctly, allow us to become better people. When we are faced with an obstacle, we will do one of two things: face the truth, or imagine something to let us escape from the situation that we are currently in. It is only in the former that we can truly learn from our hardships and become better people. It is only through facing our pain and hardship head-on that we can learn from our mistakes, figure out the best course of action, and act accordingly. After you start to make tough decisions in the moment that are better for you in the long-term, you realize the true impact of making bad decisions when you are faced with an obstacle: you do not learn as much.
I recently read an adage that stated the master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried. Although I disagree with the characterization of “master” and “beginner”, this adage touches on a very important point. The fact is that successful people have failed more times than most of us have tried, but we just fail to recognize that fact. If we are not constantly pushing our boundaries and pursuing ambitious goals, we are not growing as much as we we could be. Sometimes we will fail; other times we will succeed. When we do not succeed, however, we should be focused on reflecting on that moment. On thinking about what went wrong and how we could avoid that situation again. Indeed, it is difficult for us to reflect on our hardships — it makes us feel uncomfortable and vulnerable — but doing so is a necessary part of growth.
Face the Truth, or Justify
As aforementioned, when we face an obstacle we can either face the truth, or fabricate a story to justify our actions. We should always opt for the former because it is only through facing the truth and reflecting on said truth that we can grow. When we fabricate stories, it forces us to confront a reality that does not actually exist. This means that we are unable to make the best decisions because out judgement is clouded by the internal narrative that we have built that will allow us to avoid pain. We are more interested in preserving our current state than doing something risky that may make us appear vulnerable. The best course of action, however, is not to try to justify what happened, but rather to face our obstacles head-on. We need to stop and think about what went wrong, accept that we done what we done, and take some time to reflect on how we can prevent that thing from happening again.
The truth — and perhaps one often left unspoken — is that the true test of our principles is when we are faced with adversity and have a choice: compromise them for short-term benefit, or stick with them to maintain your ethics. When we reach an obstacle, we should always opt to act in accordance with our principles. Doing so will allow us to learn more because we will be going down the path that we should be going down. If we compromise our integrity and internal values because it will help us come to an easier resolution, we are not truly learning. The only thing that we are learning is that it is easier to compromise our values than maintain them over the long-term. And that is why the people who choose the easy path have a hard life, and those who choose the hard path have an easy life. The people who are willing to reflect on their flaws and the obstacles they face can get ahead of the game much easier than everyone else.
Focus on the Long-Term
When we face obstacles, we should always choose the more difficult path in the short term and reflect on that path over time. Sure, it may be easier for us to sacrifice our values to get a good immediate outcome. Or we can confront our vulnerabilities and think about the obstacle. It will feel painful and awkward — we are not used to being so open about our flaws. But reflecting on our hardships is a necessary part of growth — doing so allows us to learn more about ourselves, and also why our principles mean so much to us. In the moment, it can be difficult to make a long-term choice, but it is the nest course of action. In the words of Marcus Aurelius: “Our inward power, when it obeys nature, reacts to events by accommodating itself to what it faces—to what is possible. It needs no specific material. It pursues its own aims as circumstances allow; it turns obstacles into fuel."
Ultimately, our goal should be to be a better person than we were yesterday. If we have recently endured pain, then we should be thinking about how we can use what happened to become a better person. What can I learn from the argument I had with my friend? What can I learn from my internal reaction when my local coffee shop with my favorite coffee closed down? These are the sort of questions that we should be asking all of the time. We should be thinking about what we could have done differently, whether our actions were warranted, and what we can learn from our past obstacles. Indeed, it is difficult to do this, but facing reality over a fabricated existence is the best path toward personal growth. Over time, as you reflect more on your past decisions and obstacles, you will be able to better recognize just how far you have come. In sum, your goal should be to compete with who you were yesterday. Are you better? What did you learn yesterday that will allow you to be a better person today? If we don’t embrace our obstacles, the extent to our learning will be limited.
Embrace obstacles. Reflect on them. Ask what you have learned and what you could do better. Always choose the best path in the long-term.