The gift of the outside perspective.
Many of us are immigrants in some place or the other. For different reasons, we leave our homes to make a life elsewhere. Sometimes we are fleeing terrible conditions, homes and communities ripped apart by war, and catastrophe. Or we might just seek new opportunities for a better life, or in a more indulgent way, enough distance from home to be ‘ourselves’, make our own way.
For whatever reason, many of us find ourselves as outsiders, at least for a time, or perhaps our whole lives in places we have chosen to settle in. This all too common experience, of being foreign, lends a texture to life, a perspective that we can perhaps examine and mine for its insights into the goal of getting what you want.
There are studies that insinuate that a large percentage of businesses are started by immigrants, ditto, the number of advances and inventions made. For instance, more than 40% of Fortune 500 companies operating in 2010 were founded by immigrants or their children – including the likes of Apple and Disney. For all the oppressive negative and uncertain climate globally around the topic of migration, we cannot deny that much good has come from people who moved across borders for search of a new life.
This ‘foreign’ experience is not just restricted to immigrants, people who move from one country to another for a better life. It is also felt by the traveler, as you encounter strange, new cultures and places. It is even felt, albeit to a lesser extent by the one who moves across metropoles, or from the rural country to the city.
There is a vibe and mentality that prevalent amongst these immigrants, the new guys. They are generally more heightened and awake than natives. Coming from different places and having different experiences makes everything new to you. You have to stay on your toes. You have to adapt to a system that has been running along without you, you are an outsider. You have to keenly observe and see where you can fit in and what opportunities you can take advantage of.
Many times, the odds are stacked against you. The same benefits and advantages that are available to citizens are not available to you. So, the immigrant does not depend on the system. He cannot. The system was not built for him. He has to make a plan, he has to figure it out. He has to grind, seek opportunities, make friends and connections, band together with family and friends, and do whatever it takes, within and outside the system, because his survival is dependent on it. He has to get creative.
The immigrant has to build from scratch and be vigilant against losing it all tomorrow. Because you don’t have the safety net, the comfort of home, and your people around you, you have to build something new. Plus, you may have come from somewhere that was amazing, before things changed and, in a few days, the country collapsed, and you and your family lost everything. You know better than most, just how fast everything can change. This drives you to work extremely hard, and prove yourself, so you become valuable enough to dictate your terms. So, you can build a life for yourself, a life you can be proud of. You don’t just want to eat today, you want to build some kind of long-term stability, you want to be antifragile.
It is this force that pushes you outside your comfort zone. The same one that brought you here, that will continue to work on you and in you and keep you relentless in your pursuit of success. It will hopefully inspire you to think, ‘what can I offer, what can I contribute? What are my passions and skills and how can I be valuable here? ‘. It will force you to take realistic stock of your circumstance and take full responsibility for it.
And it’s that experience, the cocktail of conditions that allow many immigrants to excel. The strangeness of your new environment that forces you to stay sharp and awake. That is your gift. Because, you don’t take anything for granted, you won’t rest on your oars, there is no one to support or catch you. You will hunker down and push. You will study, work, network, put yourself out there, take the menial jobs, do whatever it takes to survive and succeed. You will make a plan and play a long-term game.
The gift of being an outsider will terraform you into the person that gets what you want.
I’ve never been punched in the mouth. At least not literarily. And not in recent memory. Perhaps last in some childhood scuffle. But I get punched in the mouth every week. Some weeks, I get punched every day. Metaphorically speaking. By life. By adulting.
Especially as a creative, as a freelancer, as an entrepreneur. Life can be sometimes feel like a series of fires to put out, and punches, mis-steps and mistakes. If there is one thing that is for sure, is that things will not go your way. The client will not pay on time, the job will take longer than you think to be commissioned, it will take even longer to get done.
Bad things are sure to happen.
How do you live in such an unfortunate and uncertain world? Do you hide and try to maximize certainty, or do you find a way to embrace the chaos and work with it?
Just under a decade ago, I began to open my mind up to other schools of thought, spiritual ideas and ways of looking at the world. In my transition into young adulthood, there were a lot of incongruencies and uncomfortable paradoxes in my belief system, and I sought to figure out a way to view the world and a way to live. The prevailing criteria for whether I would adopt a worldview or not, was its efficacy. I didn’t care where the idea came from, as long as it worked.
Life post-faith, or life after the walls of your previous belief system have been blown off can feel like free floating in the vast void of space, far from any planet or ship to orient you. This was the mental image I consistently pulled to mind as I wrestled with things in that period of my life. But sometime in 2011, I came across a blog post written by Ryan Holiday on Tim Ferris’ website that introduced me to a school of thought that would prove an anchor, and a guide. It is one I still hold dear. In fact, I count Ryan as one of my favorite authors, and his books on the school of thought as some of the most important books I’ve read. That school of thought is Stoic Philosophy.
Every now and again, a friend would come to me for advice, usually panicking, overwhelmed with some situation or event, and I would offer some perspective. I’d often refer to stoic philosophy as a possible solution or framework to analyze the problem and offer a solution. And then they would ask, ‘what is Stoic Philosophy”. There, I would stumble on my words trying to articulate something I understand quite well but can’t often express as well. This post is my attempt to do so.
Stoicism is a philosophy that is immensely practical in its approach. In other brands of philosophy, there is usually a lot of deliberation on the nature of life or reality. Or they are marked with arcane concerns that are more about jumping through intellectual hoops than anything else. Not stoicism. The main focus here is simple. How to live well.
Founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC, stoicism was famously practiced by Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus, and they are considered the main leaders of the philosophy. But over the course of history, many have illustrated stoicism as a way of life. In their ranks, leaders and statesmen, thinkers and athletes.
The core of stoicism is this. Real life is unpredictable, and much is outside our control. Our lives are fleeting, and we are plagued by anxieties. How then shall we live? How can we be steadfast, strong and in control of ourselves?
The stoics offer what are known as “spiritual exercises” meditations and patterns of thought that offer perspective and strength. I’ll highlight a few.
- Practice Misfortune
“It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself for difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favours on it is then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs.” – Seneca
Comfort is the worst kind of slavery because you are always afraid that something or someone will take it from you. – Ryan Holiday
Seneca, who was immensely wealthy man in his time, suggested that we ought to take some time every month to practice poverty. Eat little food, wear your worst clothes, expose yourself to embarrassment. Place yourself in the uncomfortable situation you fear and ask yourself ‘Is this what I used to dread?’
If you practiced the worst-case scenario, when it actually happens, it loses its ability to disrupt your life. You are already familiar with it. If you get punched every now and again, you get desensitized to it, better able to handle it.
- Train Perception to avoid good and bad
“Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed and you haven’t been.” -Marcus Aurelius
Nothing is good or bad. It is our judgement that makes it so. Management of perception is one of the core tenets of stoicism. In fact, the first theme in Ryan’s book ‘The Obstacle is the Way’ is all about the ‘discipline of perception’.
When tragedy strikes – you don’t win the pitch, you have a bad day at work, your colleagues undermine you, it is easy to judge what has happened as bad, getting wrapped up in the resulting emotion, anger, distress, worry. To the Stoic, everything is opportunity. Things simply happen. We decide if its good or bad. We choose to see the good in it. We choose to turn the obstacle on its head.
The failed pitch becomes a teachable moment, an event to mine for lessons to fortify ourselves for the next one. It becomes practice. Problems at work with colleagues becomes an opportunity to learn, to practice virtue – compassion, equanimity, leadership, forgiveness. The bad day teaches us resilience and a chance to maintain an inner citadel of peace in a chaotic harsh world.
- Is this within my control
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own . . .” – Epictetus
Perhaps the most important practice in stoic philosophy is discerning what we can control and what we can’t. You can’t control the weather, you can’t control traffic, you can’t control the actions of others. You can’t make someone like you or love you. No amount of huffing and puffing and crying and whining will change certain things. Why expend energy on them?
There are only a few things that really matter and only a few things you can control. Focus on those.
You can’t change where you were born or who you were born to. You probably can’t change the job market, or the prevailing economic conditions. Not without immense coordination and collaboration with others anyway. But you can change your perspective, you can change your actions. Focus on what you can do and take action along those lines.
This meditation dovetails nicely with the discipline of action. As a person with goals and aims, all I can do is focus on what I can control and consistently take the actions I can to move me closer to them. I can’t control when the client will pay, but I can focus on drumming up new business, I can focus on finding better clients, I can focus on increasing my streams of income. There is no use crying about how unfair it all is, all I can do is focus on what I can do. And take bold action.
Everything must be done in the service of the whole. Step by step, action by action, we’ll dismantle the obstacles in front of us. With persistence and flexibility, we’ll act in the best interest of our goals. – Ryan Holiday (The Obstacle is the Way)
So, what do you do when you have been punched in the mouth?
Take a step back. Wipe off the blood. Learn from the punch.
Was it inevitable? Was it just bad luck or misfortune? Did you fail to account for something? Were you too relaxed? Did you let your guard down? Maybe it’s okay that you got punched. Punches make you tougher, they build your resilience. Perhaps you can learn to pull a punch like that. How can you avoid another punch? How can you deal better with it next time? How can you use the momentum of the punch against your opponent, against your obstacle?
Don’t get mad. Don’t let it throw you off balance for too long. Don’t let it ruin everything you have been working for.
I have borrowed liberally from this primer on Stoicism here, to articulate the philosophy and some of its meditations. I also highly recommend Ryan’s books ‘The Obstacle is The Way’ , ‘Ego is the Enemy’ and ‘The Daily Stoic’. Also Robert Greene’s books The 48 laws of power, The 50thlaw, The 33 strategies of war and Mastery are very much in the stoic vein…at least in my opinion
Yet another gem from Gary Vee.
It was something he said in passing, talking about business and social media – It’s either you are on the offensive, going out there and conquering ground, or you are on the defensive, pulling back, trying to protect the little that you have, making excuses for why you can’t win.
And that is really a statement about life isn’t it? There are two options, two main ways of existing. It is either you are on the offensive or you are on the defensive. You are either conquering or being conquered, by life, by the unfair conditions, by other players, by your excuses.
It is the difference between those who get what they want and those who don’t. It is the difference between the warriors and the slaves. To get what you want, you have to fight for what you want. You can sit around waiting for an opportunity or you can go right ahead and create opportunity. You can be proactive, pushing your agenda, or you can be reactive, being at the whims of everyone else.
Too many times, we wait around for something to happen to us. We wait for the opportunity to fall in our lap, for the situation to resolve itself. We live as victims of our own lives. But we have the potential to be so much more.
It starts with the shift in mentality.
You have to move from the defensive to the offensive.
The key to possessing this supreme power is to assume the active mode in dealing with your fears. This means entering the very arenas you normally shy away from: making the very hard decisions you have been avoiding, confronting the people who are playing power games with you, thinking of yourself and what you need instead of pleasing others, making yourself change the direction of your life even though such a change is the very thing you dread. – 50 Cent & Robert Greene (The 50thLaw)
Sometimes things do fall in our laps. Sometimes we do get lucky. But…
Hope is not a strategy. Luck is not a factor. Failure is not an option.
To be on the offensive means to be actively moving towards your goals. It means to do the work. It means making the product. It means building the platform. It means networking and connecting with the people. It means searching relentlessly for the job, and while doing so, doing everything you can to make a buck. If you can’t get the job, then you will be the job. It means being awake to the reality of the world and attacking it as it is.
To the warrior on the offensive, there is simply no excuse that will do. The problems are not problems, they are obstacles that will be removed, climbed over or dug under or chipped away. Either way, the only acceptable result is winning. You can let your problems stop you, or you can rise to be bigger than your problems. The choice is up to you.
They can take away your resources, they can take away your choices, they can frustrate you. But they cannot take your mind, or your will and resolve.
To be proactive, is to set a goal in mind, a vision, and act in direct relation to that. Steadily, consistently. It means to take initiative, by yourself, even when you are not prompted to. It means to start. It means to create. It means launching. It means drawing a line in the sand and planting your flag. It means claiming your territory.
It means being awake. It being keenly aware of opportunities. It means increasing the odds of your success with relentless effort. It means doing the things that will actually move the needle. It is going above and beyond the call of duty.
Not to say that you will succeed. You will make mistakes and you will fail. But you will correct them, and you will keep going.
Some mistakes will be made along the way, that is good. Because at least some decisions are being made along the way. And we’ll find the mistakes, and fix them. – Steve Jobs
Your efforts on the offensive will sometimes land you in hot water, you will run into brick walls and obstacles. You will push, and the world will push back. But if you keep on learning and pushing, soon the world will yield.
What’s the alternative?
Being on the defensive? Complaining about how hard things are? Being bitter about the way things are today and the state of the economy or the attention landscape? What good will that bring you except coddle your fragile ego?
There will be a time for being defensive. There is a time for everything under the sun. Sometimes you will be on the offensive, doing things and expanding your reach. Other times you will be on the defensive. But you can only defend when there is something to defend. Are you defending your empire, your home, the life you are creating or you defending your excuse?
The best defence is a good offense.
So, go on the offensive this week, and the week after that, and the week after that. Do something you have never done before. Take a bold step, put yourself out there, reach further than you have ever reached before. That is how you will get what you want.
What do you think about when you think of success? Something big right? Like buying that house or buying the car. Hitting that number in the account or starting that family. Maybe it is bagging that degree, or chilling on a yacht sipping mimosas. Perhaps you more inclined to having a successful career or business as your benchmark for success.
We work diligently towards the big moments, the time when all our work culminates in something tangible. We daydream of the championship moment, the winning second. We desire some pomp and ceremony, whether it is the celebratory party or the humble brag Instagram post.
And they are wonderful.
However, in between our beginnings and these moments of climax lie the long days and nights of work, of mis-steps, of dashed hopes, disappointments or just plain mundanity. We face the thankless work, and unexciting grind. In this vast swath of dirt, we also find some glittering gems, the small wins.
The big moments we crave, the ones that we look to and pin all our hopes on, they add up to a handful, a baker’s dozen at most compared to the vast ocean of the trickling sand of day to day life. And that is why we celebrate them so much. They are rare, they are hard won. They are huge, and they are wonderful, they come with the euphoric rush and make for incredibly Instagram-able moments.
But as soon as they come, they go. We rise high and then float back to earth and are off to the next thing.
But while we grind and work towards those moments, the process does come with some rewards. Cups of refreshing drink as we run the marathon if you will. Sometimes, success doesn’t look like pomp and celebration. Sometimes, success looks like progress.
It is in the slight differences between our ‘before’ and ‘after’ pics two months into consistently putting work at the gym. It is realizing you are now able to complete a task in half the time it used to take you. It is getting deeper into your craft and understanding it on an increasingly deeper level.
Success is not just the big moments, it is also the small wins. The ones we tend to discount because they are not marked with fireworks in the sky.
The small win encourages us. It lets us know that all the blood and sweat so far is not for naught. It reminds us to stay strong, it inspires us to take up more, and to tackle the areas we have slacked.
The small wins are worth paying attention to and celebrating, because life is not about the big break, it’s about the many tiny breaks that add up to something great over time.
Sometimes success even looks like failure.
Shekinah is now an award-winning artist, but she first burst into our collective consciousness when she came second place at Idols SA in 2012.
So, it’s not necessarily about the win or loss, it is about what you do with it. Sometimes failing can be the best thing, because it can have the seeds of your breakthrough. Many successful companies and products have their roots in failure. Twitter pivoted from a podcast subscription network called Odeo to what we know it as now. Tesla probably exists now from soil made fertile by Better Place’s failure.
Thomas Edison said that Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work. In the same way success doesn’t always look the way we think success should look. Our focus must remain on doing the things that count, maintaining the action that increases the odds that we will get what we want.
If there is one thing I’ve come to see over the years of working and living is that generally, things tend to take longer than you think and certainly longer than you’d like. From small things like the design jobs I work on, to the bigger long-term projects, they can seem to drag on and on, and then life gets in the way and you lose focus.
To remain focused and consistent in the face of a seemingly unending struggle is sometimes a herculean task. But it is one that must be handled if you will succeed. Because that is part of the dip, that long chasm between desire and fulfillment. It is a battle, it is war.
There is a quote I often mention to my friends, that ‘the work belongs to you, but the results belong to God’. It is an admonishment and an exhortation to focus on what you control.
You can’t control when certain things will happen. You can’t control when that deal will come through, or if it will come through. All you can focus on is doing everything that is within your power – preparing, poking holes in your strategy and fixing them, making your case stronger, improving your art, improving your marketing and persuasion. You just have to do all you can, patiently waiting for your turn, ready for the moment Lady Luck smiles on you.
But where does the line fall between being patient and wasting time? It is a tough one for sure. Your being patient with your situation might mean that you are not being proactive enough or doing things that will move the needle forward towards your aims. But sometimes the right and hardest thing to do is nothing. Sometimes all you must do is wait and let the situation resolve itself, let the weather pass, let the opportunity present itself. Other times you must take initiative.
Whatever we choose, whatever the right action to be taken, it is important to remain vigilant. Because if you lose sight of what you are trying to achieve, if you begin to drift, you will soon enough find yourself caught off course and unawares. Be patient but stay vigilant on the goal.
There is the parable in the bible about the bridesmaids and the oil. The entire party is waiting on the groom and he takes forever to arrive. But eventually he does, and when he does, half the party has burned through their oil and can’t light their lamps. The other half were vigilant and better prepared with extra oil and were able to continue with lit lamps into the celebration because they remained goal focused even in the midst of a severely delayed plan.
And that is a form of persistence, not merely of action, but a keen presence of mind.
What do you do when you are blocked? When you are stopped, and all you can do is wait? What do you do when you are forced to take a break? When even though it’s all you want to do, you just can’t move forward yet? Do you give up and lose steam, or do you lean in and use this gift anyway?
Ryan Holiday shares Robert Greene’s distinction between alive time and dead time. The difference between the two is what you do with it. What do you do with your waiting time? Are you passive, letting your skills atrophy? Do you lose your momentum, or do you find some use for the time you have? Do you keep studying and honing the skills? Do you keep learning? Do you keep preparing, do you stay sharp?
Gary Vaynerchuk has the mantra of ‘Macro Patience, Micro Speed’, it is an incredible encapsulation of a deep-rooted truth, that in the long run, things just take time, that’s why you have to take the wide view, the macro view. But in the day to day, you have to act, you have to hustle, you have to be vigilant. You have to stay hungry and motivated.
That is the dichotomy, the paradox. To make haste, but slowly. To do all you can do today, and this year, but knowing that your dream might take months, or years or decades. In all that, you must play the time, you must keep on working towards the goal. It is a long-term commitment to perpetually being excellent in the short term. It is not easy, but it is necessary if you will get what you want.
Here is the thing about life. You will fail. In the pursuit of what you want, you will fall many times. That is guaranteed. Fear it. Run from it. Failure comes all the same.
We are not perfect, no matter how much we may wish we were. We make mistakes, we drift off course, we betray ourselves. We fail in our actions and our inactions. In the heat of battle and the thick of the day-to-day, we grow weary, we lose strength, we begin to falter.
The initial euphoria of giving chase to our dream wears off, and all that remains is the tedium of the day to day, the dull thud of the process. Fear and doubt set in, and we find ourselves in a fog, lost in the woods of life.
Sometimes we give it a valiant effort. We do everything we can. We practice, we prepare, and we try. We hack and slash. But despite our best efforts, things just don’t go our way. Sometimes because we just weren’t good enough. Sometimes for no fault of our own. Sometimes, it feels like the universe conspires against us.
What do we do in those times? How do we respond to failure, to setbacks, to not getting our way? How do we respond to the inevitable fatigue that sets in during our quest for what we want? How do we stay strong? How do we endure?
How do we bounce back even stronger?
First we stop
“Sometimes it takes a good fall to know where we stand”
The first thing to do when you find yourself in a hole is to stop digging. We have to stop whatever we are doing. Stop thrashing about. Stop running the scripts and patterns in your mind. Stop and breathe. Admit you have failed. But know you are not a failure.
Stop regularly even before you get walloped by a big failure or setback. Failure often doesn’t just come in one fell swoop out of nowhere. The signs of impending failure are usually there if we know to look for them. The missed routine, the sloppy preparation, the work that keeps piling on to the point of overwhelm. They start off as benign and then quickly grow malignant.
If you stop regularly and pay attention, you can recognize that you are failing before things really break apart. Unfortunately, it usually takes a serious failure or hit to our ego for us to finally stop. But once it hits us, once we see that we have failed, it is time to take pause.
Then we re-evaluate
“If you learn from defeat, you haven’t really lost.” – Zig Ziglar
This part is crucial. It is no use to rush over our failure, eager to get to our next attempt, desperate for success. But failure invites us to reconsider our goals, our plans, and our strategies. Failure is an opportunity to learn.
Look around you, look at what you have done, look at what has happened. Mull it over and try and pinpoint the place where you went wrong. Try to tease out the trigger. Did you get overwhelmed? Did you fail to address bad habits? Did you not take the time to rest properly? Did you simply lack knowledge or fail to give your efforts the energy they need?
Diagnosing and carrying out post-mortems on our failures is an extremely vital leaning tool. It can help us be better prepared on our next attempt. It can help us update our strategies.
However, do not get stuck here. It is fairly easy to turn this exercise into a compulsion. Turning a situation in your mind over and over again and being paralyzed by your analysis. The purpose of the reflection is to help you learn, adjust and ultimately improve your odds for success.
Then we re-connect
“Failure isn’t so bad if it doesn’t attack the heart. Success is all right if it doesn’t go to the head.” – John C. Maxwell
Failure is never nice. It hurts, it disappoints. It causes us to begin to doubt ourselves and our journey. Have enough failure, and eventually you would quit. In the pit of our despair, we can choose to give in to the pressure and let go. Or we can forge our will to succeed and keep on trucking.
To make this decision, we must remind ourselves why this matters, why this is important, why we have chosen this journey. We have to reinforce our sense of mission, our commitment to the cause. What excites us about our vision? What do we truly want to create? What would we like to see happen in the world, in our world?
Are our actions still aligned with our values? Is this road you are on leading you to what you want? Can we rise to this challenge and seek to conquer it? Or should we pull back and take another route? Do we abandon this quest all together for a better one?
We have to get back to our why. We have to reconnect to our sense of vision, our ambition, and our desire for what we want. This is our north star, and our decisions and actions must stem from it.
Then we press on
Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail. – Ralph Waldo Emerson
Once we are reconnected with our dream and vision, we take up new energy. With our faith restored, and our souls refilled, we embark on our journey again. We are creative and productive again. We are pressing towards the goal.
If it is a goal worth pursuing, it will not be easy, but it will be a little bit easier because you have failed, and you have learned. Now you have the opportunity to do something different, to try again more creatively.
So, we work hard. We do what we know to do, while staying vigilant against the things we must avoid. Knowing that we will fail again, but we have the tools to bounce right back.