the Obstacle is the Way

Ryan Holiday, ‘The Obstacle Is The Way: The Timeless Art Of Turning Trials Into Triumph.’  2014 Portfolio Hardcover, 224 p. 

Holiday’s premise, and that of the philosophers whom he quotes rigorously, is that any challenge in life is best met head on. I was immediately intrigued by the book’s brash attitude. Over and over again, the point was made that obstacles, challenges and trials are essential to the human experience, and attempting to live without them or constantly avoid them is meaningless and harmful.

Breaking the philosophy into three distinct methods, he highlights Perspective, Action, and Will as the means to defeat any hardship.

Perspective, the first, defines how to approach a setback. It is the “fundamental notion that girds not just Stoic philosophy but cognitive psychology: Perspective is everything.” Take an obstacle for what it is: not how it makes you feel, what it might imply for the future, what its cause may have been, etc; these curiosities are just a distraction that do not contribute to its defeat. There is power in the fluidity of perspective, and that facility is an advantage over the stasis of an obstacle.

“Don’t feel harmed – and you haven’t been.” – Marcus Aurelius

The second discipline is Action. “What people who defy the odds do… They start. Anywhere. Anyhow. They don’t care if the conditions are perfect or if they’re being slighted. Because they know that once they get started, if they can just get some momentum, they can make it work.” Action is what follows perspective: once we condition ourselves that an obstacle is only fearful if we think of it as fearful, then we may act to overcome it. Historical examples are packed in to illustrate this concept: Ameila Earhart flew in the face of doubt and discrimination, Ulysses Grant suffered hard losses and had to discard military convention, Thomas Edison experimented with six thousand possible filaments to use in his first light bulb. These stories of right and persistent action “…are not the exception to the rule. They are the rule. This is how innovation works,” says the author. An obstacle requires action, and right action grows naturally stronger according to the weight of the obstacle.

“When the fire is strong, it soon appropriates to itself the matter which is heaped on it, and consumes it, and rises higher by means of this very material.” – Marcus Aurelius

Will. “Our final trump card.” The third discipline of beating challenges. Will is the essence of the fight, and as described in the book’s final section, it is the last thing we may hold on to when action seems to fall short. We may change our perspective, and we may begin to act – but when the first act fails, and the second act follows – it is will that will stand us back up for a third, fourth, or fiftieth try. Abraham Lincoln is offered as the personification of willpower: he was raised in poverty, but educated himself. He lost his mother as a child, his first romantic love passed away, yet he found political office. He suffered from what is now understood as clinical depression, but in his time was just considered an unattractive personal habit of ‘melancholy.’ In spite of all his disadvantages, he often repeated the phrase – “This too shall pass.”

Meditation on the persistence of obstacles is a way to enhance the will: “Behind mountains are more mountains.” Being certain that another challenge exists after the current one means that slowing down or losing strength can only make the next problem more difficult. Being persistently mindful of the cyclical nature of opposition strengthens the will.

In the book’s last pages, a Stoic Reading List is prepared. Inspired by this contemporary reading of classical concepts, I dug out my old copy of Epictetus’, ‘the Art of Living,’ to see how much of Holiday’s narrative was comparable to the wisdom of the ancients. Epictetus states: “Men are not disturbed by things, but by the views which they take on things.”  My copy of  ‘the Art…’ which had sat untouched on a shelf for years, has since been relocated to my bedside. Now I can take 5 minutes every day to remind myself: The Obstacle Is The Way.

 

 

Identity is the New Money

Thoughts on Identity is the New Money, by David Birch. 126 p. London Publishing Partnership, May 2014.

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Despite its provocative title, I didn’t finish this book with a precise understanding of how money will be replaced by identity; but along the way there were several interesting points regarding the advancement of mobile technology as a payment mechanism, and the implications for digital identity and privacy. The brief case studies indicate international efforts to make digital identities are further along than the USA’s, but no one is making great strides in adoption just yet.

I was left with questions about the book’s central idea, which is not a necessarily a bad thing when reacting to this kind of abstract premise. Was he saying I’ll be able to buy goods and services based on how many facebook friends I have? That the social graph alone will prove my ‘credit-worthiness’ and earn me whatever I need that I would otherwise have to pay for with dollars? How does being a part of the social graph actually increase, or enable wealth, from a technological perspective?

I think the book would have benefited from a different title, like ‘mobile phones are the new money.’ To me, the mobile examples were the most interesting futurist perspective offered, and the ones that made the most sense. Instead of cash, mobile phones should communicate without exchanging a great deal of identity information, only that I am Person A who has X number of dollars, and I would like to exchange them for a thing or service. No cash needs to change hands, or even exist, I suppose.

One of the most compelling ideas was that the economy can now support ‘infinite currencies.’ With physical money, we are limited by what we can carry – only one type. But with digital, it can be an infinite number, assuming an infrastructure is there to support it – not unlike the dozens of credit cards some people carry. So I could issue ‘Brian Dollars’ and you could carry them with your regular dollars, and when your phone initiated a transaction with me, I would tell it to use Brian Dollars only and it would comply.

The practical examples for this ability aren’t completely clear, but it seems like a logical idea. Maybe I will only give Brian Dollars to people who are nice, and you can exchange them for a cup of coffee. Or maybe my Apartment Manager will give me ‘apartment dollars’ when I pay my rent early, and I can exchange them for a ceiling fan. This kind of personalized exchange wouldn’t work with standard currency, since standard currency could be exchanged for anything – but with personalized currencies, the scope of transacting is easier to control.

The book’s historical references to ‘giant stones’ and ‘tax collecting sticks’ of centuries old illustrated that payment technology isn’t static. People haven’t been using credit cards or checks forever. Ancient systems were in place before what we have today, and therefore, what we have today will someday also be ancient and replaced by new things. A good way to get people on board with adopting new things is to point out what the old things were, and how much room there is for improvement.

Without a finance background, there were macro concepts behind the cash replacement idea that I didn’t really understand. My interpretation of the argument was that cash is expensive to produce and manage, and permissive of anonymous and potentially illicit transactions, therefore the financial system could be reformed and benefit from operating without cash. I agree with anonymity being undesirable, but I don’t think creating and managing a cashless technology infrastructure will be any simpler than maintaining a cash-based one, nor immune to hacks and corruption.

The most important argument I gathered from the book was that privacy is increased when digital identity is leveraged to facilitate physical, in-person payments (or ‘mundane payments’, as the author calls them.) Through cryptographic wizardry, my phone can prove that it is me, Brian, who is using it, and anyone who wants to interact with it can be sure they are interacting with me – and I can control what ‘parts’ of me, or which ‘identity’ they interact with and get access to. If I only want them to know I have 20 Jumbo Dollars, that’s all they get to know, but if they also need to know I live on Sesame Street, or that I am not a convict, they may ask for access to that information also, and it can be proven authoritatively via private key infrastructure, mobile phones, and identity management applications.

So, in short – this was a complicated but interesting take on the changing landscape of identity credentials, payments, and mobile technology. Maybe not all that fascinating or useful to people who work outside of the ‘Finance Tech’ industry, but perhaps these ideas will become more prevalent and widely understood over the next several decades as mass adoption grows.

I’m actually wearing pants right now

I  just finished reading ‘The Year Without Pants,’ written by a Scott Berkun, a former manager at WordPress.com. It’s an in-the-weeds tale of life at a distributed (remote work) company, something anybody who has ever sat in a cubicle fantasizes about. I picked the book up because I wanted to know more about working from home, and whether it’s a realistic alternative.
 
I love WordPress, the company, which is a great way to write, receive feedback, and share my thoughts with whoever wants to read them. As a user of their products I totally endorse their mission and what they stand for. But a few things about the story make me think the author wasn’t completely sold on working remotely all of the time.
 
The story finishes with the writer’s departure from the company, only a few years after starting. To me, this makes a pretty big statement. He doesn’t really elaborate on his decision to leave, aside from claiming an aspiration to ‘the writing life.’ Hmm… everybody aspires to the writing life, but nobody quits a job over it…. Right? I wonder if he is reserving his negative opinion of the experience because the experience is what gave him a subject for his book, and he is grateful for it to that end. 
 
From an editorial perspective, it’s a pretty sleepy read. There is an entire page describing a game of shuffleboard played between two coworkers. I think it was shuffleboard – I had to skim several re-tellings of ‘meetups,’ which read like journal entries from a 16 year old girl coming home from a date. The author’s enthusiasm over these rare in-person interactions between colleagues seemed awkward – I felt like too much excitement was garnered from the kind of trivial stuff that happens daily in any regular work environment. The banal was given epic status – to paraphrase what is described as brilliant team-building, “We stayed up late and drank beers together, tee-hee!” 
 
The lack of clarity in the narrative is interesting. The story bounces annoyingly between soapbox tirades on the virtues of good leadership, and very boring histories of meetings, arguments and project schedules. Many of the ‘conversations’ recounted in the book, sometimes pasted in verbatim from online chat records, are synopses of interactions that took place via text, on the internet. Communicating with someone via chat is dull enough already, reading someone’s recount of a conversation from that medium is even worse. Is it possible that in the years of working at WordPress, communicating only through brief, unedited and casual chat windows, the author lost all sense of what makes paragraphs, sentences, and chapters engaging units of a cohesive whole? 
 
At any rate, I think the book (and WordPress) indirectly raise interesting questions about working remotely. There are absolutely benefits to it. For people who do this kind of advanced technology labor, there really isn’t a need for them to inhabit the same physical space. The internet enables mostly the same kinds of interactions that an office space would, to a point. But that line is drawn somewhere around being able to pick up on your cube-mate’s non-verbals, eavesdropping on hallway conversations, and having someone besides a cat to drink coffee with. 
 
So maybe the answer is not having people work from anywhere in the world at any time, as WordPress does, nor is it requiring punch cards to a suburban cube farm from 8:30 to 6. Perhaps there’s something in the middle to strive for.
 
I am curious if any companies have had success with ‘hub’ offices in ‘home’ cities, leaving a space open to all, and having people who work out of their homes regularly attend in person only for weekly or bi-weekly gatherings – as opposed to hiring globally and sponsoring jet-set international meet-ups every four or five months, as happens at WordPress. 
 
All criticism of the story’s boring moments aside, I hope WordPress continues doing whatever it’s doing to put out this great platform for blogging. Whatever works for you all – carry on! 
 

on not writing much

It has been a busy summer.

I turned 30 back in June – a milestone of thirtiesh proportions. After spending an inordinate amount of time contemplating it, wondering if I should be preparing, etc; it just happened – I woke up without my twenties. A blog post has been in draft status ever since, in which I recount 30 blessings I’ve had in the last 30 years. I’m having trouble finishing it, because there’s too much I’m afraid of leaving out.

For my birthday weekend, we took a quick trip to New York. New York is amazing, especially when you try to cram the whole bursting, loud thing into just a few days. We met Bryan Cranston, watched Outkast perform for their 20th anniversary, and visited with people we love.

My wonderful girlfriend and I moved into a new apartment together a few short weeks later. It has been a blast settling in and making our place feel like home. Pinterest, I don’t think we could have done it without you.

So in all the excitement, I’ve been enjoying the moment and not worrying a great deal about writing anything. No regrets there. What was that old Hemingway quote?

‘In order to write about life, first you must live it.’

I don’t usually dote on about my personal life in this blog, but that’s what’s happening! I’m planning to take some courses in the Fall, which should give me ample material for new posts. Until then…

the Four Hour “Lorem Ipsum”

What would I do with the extra thirty-six if I only had to work for four hours, every week?

In Tim Ferris’ book, The Four Hour Workweek, the answer to that question is given less attention than the ‘how-to’ guide for finding oneself in such a quandary. As he recounts his own experience, the author presents the alternative ‘new rich’ lifestyle of time spent dwelling nomadically through Europe, learning languages, and adopting several new ‘kinesthetic’ activities per year as the alternative to cubicle-dwelling wage slavery.

For a creative mind, some of the ideas might be poisonous to accept – Ferris proposes a ‘physical product’ driven business as the only path to a life of R&R; he argues that selling widgets, gidgets and gadgets is the easiest framework for removing oneself from the day-to-day operations of a financial enterprise. Artists, singers, athletes, counselors, teachers, beware – there are no four hour workweeks in your future, if you can’t outsource the manufacture & fulfillment of your muses to virtual assistants in India.

After drawing up thorough instructions on how to pick a market and jump in to the sales fray, Ferris takes a moment to reflect on what it will feel like, when you’ve done enough outsourcing to travel leisurely around the world and spend only brief moments checking email to run your business: ‘It will be hard at first.’

He says it’s in this extra downtime when you’ll come face-to-face with big questions – ‘What’s the meaning of everything?’  Ferris asserts that dwelling on the intangibles may be avoided by frequent jiu-jitsu or tango dancing lessons.

The motivational and analytical quotations peppered into the text are enriching, and appear so often that readers may subconsciously find them as one of the most compelling reasons to keep turning pages. From Machiavelli:

“All courses of action are risky, so prudence is not in avoiding danger (it’s impossible), but calculating risk and acting decisively. Make mistakes of ambition and not mistakes of sloth. Develop the strength to do bold things, not the strength to suffer.” 

The wealth of quotes are thoughtful, and despite the book’s overall ridiculousness, they complement several other useful tidbits buried in the impossible mission of spending only four hours per week doing actual work. For example, the few paragraphs on speed reading were unexpectedly helpful.

With his big plan and fancy quotes, Ferris seems all set to kick up his feet with an umbrella drink and live the dream. But hasn’t this question of one’s obligation to forgo personal pleasure in the name of societal duties been around for a while?

In the publishing industry, for hundreds and hundreds of years, the Latin text ‘Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet…’ (attributed to Cicero, 45 B.C.) has been used as placeholding filler for typesetters to use before final copy was ready. In translation, Lorem Ipsum states…

‘We denounce with righteous indignation and dislike men who are so beguiled and demoralized by the charms of pleasure of the moment, so blinded by desire, that they cannot foresee the pain and trouble that are bound to ensue.’

Uncountable drafts of novels, newspapers, and magazines have used this quote in their creation process. Gutenberg himself may have plated it out. Whatever reason one chooses to argue for its selection, its ancient dictum is stark: Concentrating only on pleasure is bad.

Yet, here is Tim Ferris, flying in the face of 500 years of publishing tradition with an entire volume dedicated to enriching the lives of ‘men who are so beguiled and demoralized by the charms and pleasure of the moment, so blinded by desire…

I’m searching here for some thread of irony in The Four Hour Workweek’s reliance on quotes from big thinkers (Seneca, Thoreau, Bruce Lee…) yet in the end, the author repulses at ‘coming face to face with the big questions.’ And as a reader, after completing the book, you might be wondering whose advice to follow…

Tim Ferris, with a few years on the best seller list under his belt, questing for 80% pleasure and only 20% work?  Or Cicero, and his thousands of years of placeholder-text wisdom: “in certain circumstances and owing to the claims of duty or the obligations of business it will frequently occur that pleasures have to be repudiated and annoyances accepted.”

Perhaps it’s a bit demanding to expect that The Four Hour Workweek will match the lofty ideals set forth by the people whom it quotes (or who its typesetters quoted.) Its presentation is gimmicky, but underneath the goo, there lives some valuable advice and reasonable calls for reflection on the profit-driven and time-crunched modern lifestyle.

 

on singular focus

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

-Robert A. Heinlein

ode to a Cat

Twelve years ago, one of my high school English teachers congratulated me on graduating, and gave me a thoughtful gift that I still appreciate – poems by Neruda. Now its cover is warped and pages are faded, but I’ve nearly memorized my favorite verse from the collection:  ‘Oda al Gato’

For no reason other than cats are awesome, here’s a (translated) excerpt:

“your kind
need not puzzle us, surely -
you, the least of the mysteries
abroad in the world, known to us all, the pawn
of the lowliest householder -
or they think so! -
for each calls himself master,
proprietor, playfellow,
cat’s uncle, colleague,
the pupils of cats
or their cronies.

Not I:
I reckon things otherwise.
I shall never unriddle the cat.
I take note of the other things: life’s archipelagoes,
the sea, the incalculable city,
botanical matters,
the pistil, the pistil’s mutations,
plus-and-minus arithmetic,
volcanoes that funnel the earth
the improbable rind of the crocodile,
the fireman’s unheeded benevolence,
the atavist blue of the clergyman-
but never the cat!
We do not concern him: our reasoning boggles,
and his eyes give their numbers in gold.”

 

When I’m hanging out with my cat (London, seen above) I really feel Neruda’s words. London doesn’t want to be a human, or dinosaur, or anything else. He doesn’t care about wearing pants. He has serious business to attend to, all the time. I don’t know what it is – but it’s serious.

His most beloved way of attention-getting is the head-butt. If there is something he deems I should be paying attention to, head-butts are distributed until I comply.

If I’m sleeping in, and he decides I have better things to do, he plucks the strings on my guitar with his teeth until I’m awake. He has is own bed, and uses it often, but prefers sometimes to stage his dreams on top of mine, pawing his way into a cocoon on my pillow. His bed, my bed, the breakfast bar. Any flat surface will do. Naps are unscheduled and frequent.

Some cats aren’t friendly. They hide under the bed when company arrives, or they haunt their people from high perches, sneering down unlovingly. London is the opposite. He will climb your legs and shoulders at first introduction. He prefers to carefully screen any reading material I pick up before I can settle in with it, swatting at the pages, sprawling across the entire book.

I don’t know what chorus he learned it from, but many afternoons a concert takes place in the bathtub. Merrroooh, Murraww, Meereew, he sings – it bounces off the bare tiles, loudly. When he isn’t singing, sometimes he is annoyed, and then his voice is inexplicably an exact replica of Marge Simpson’s groan – Mrhhrrmmmmmhh.

Sometimes I wonder how his memory works. If he sees a suitcase start filling up with clothes, it becomes abundantly clear that he is Not O.K. with anyone leaving, even if it’s been months since the last time he saw a suitcase. But on a regular basis, he needs a soft reminder that eating my plants is an offense punishable by water bottle squirting.

He used to live with his brother, Paris, but they are now separate. As kittens they got along famously, but they’ve now been apart for a few years. I’m curious what kind of a reunion they might have. Would it be, “Oh, hey bro, good to see you again”…? Or something more like “I’m going to pee right now, on this carpet, so you know that I belong here and you don’t.”

Head-butting is a great attention-getter, and he employs it often. But he can also work below the radar to let humans know where the power really lies.

Coming home a few years ago to my apartment, after a long workday, I found some of my neighbors outside talking with a group of firefighters. Someone had left their gas burner on, and filled the building up with noxiousness. It wasn’t me, of course, because I am Super Responsible.

But… walking inside, and finding my apartment door open, I was shocked. It was coming from my apartment. I hadn’t used the stove in days – how was this possible?

London winked at me from the corner. The knob on the stove had been turned by his little paw, just enough to start up the gas without a flame. In his innocent leaps and bounds across my kitchen appliances, harmlessly searching for a snack, my furry friend had made an invitation to the fire department.

I’ve since forgiven him. What choice do I have? Not only did he maintain my favor, but I continue to shovel his poop from a box of sand whenever he decides its necessary.

When he’s scrunched up into a little cat-ball, quietly looking through the window out upon the wild, vast expanse of the patio, eyes wide open, fixed intently on this, and then that, and then another thing – something must be on his mind. But as Neruda said, I’m not going to be the guy who finally unriddles it.