The above was a sign on Harry Truman’s desk. Nice touch.
But it goes beyond being the President. We may not be responsible for a whole country. But we are always responsible for ourselves. Maybe we aren’t the root cause for why something has happened. But we always have responsibility for how we respond. Do we react proactively or do we bury our head in the sand? There are many choices available to us. The buck for what we do and how we respond always stops with us.
It’s easy to be disappointed with the way things work out sometimes. “Should have…” – “could have…” – “if only…”
We compare and contrast outcomes with the grass is always greener methodology. “I’ll be happy when…”
Our locus of control represents such a small part of our lives. The vast majority of what goes on in the world is external to us. You can’t control politics, global events, the weather, what happens with your favourite sports team or so many other externals. It would be nice to no doubt. But we have to remember that life isn’t a straight line affair. It’s up and down and up and down. Good mixed with bad. Opportunity mixed with difficulty. Sure many have far greater opportunity and some have far worse difficulty than others. No life is the same. No person experiences the world the same. But if you instead focus on the little that you can control – perspective, optimism, reflection, attitude, growth mindset, positivity, being friendly, being authentic, having integrity, taking action on positive steps – exercise, diet, nature, career, education, relationships, wellbeing. It doesn’t take much to frame ourselves away from negativity. We accept that things and ourselves will never be perfect – but we can do the best we can with what we have in front of us. Take action on the little in our control to make things just a little better each day – as the happy warrior in Wordsworth’s poem goes- “looks forward”…””from well to better, daily self-surpast” …
It’s natural to feel let down with things or with ourselves or because we really thought we were going to win the lottery – but acceptance that sometimes that’s just the way things go is half the battle. Be disappointed. But let it drive you on to take action on the things we can move, we can make happen.
“The true man is revealed in difficult times.” – Epictetus – Discourses
We want an easy life most of the time. Heck our species fought just to survive for thousands of years – so now we’re in this place of relevant comfort – wouldn’t we be stupid if we sought out stress? The harsh truth is that difficulties show us who we really are or are capable of being – or in some cases – who we’re not. Whether it’s pressure forming a diamond or steel sharpening steel etc etc – all these metaphors come down to one simple thing – difficulties, hardships, challenges, obstacles – they’re not to be avoided because without them – you’ll never achieve your full potential.
“Although I am over 67 years old, I’ll start all over again tomorrow.”- Thomas Edison – NY Times
Thomas Edison said the above after his factory burned down. The whole town was out watching the scene. Imagine towards the latter part of your life and career not being completely torn down internally by watching your business burn to the ground. But imagine saying “well I can start again.”
“If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs” – Rudyard Kipling
“Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:” – Rudyard Kipling
How many of us can honestly say – no matter how wise or philosophical we are – that we would respond positively to a situation such as this? Literal or metaphorical? Heck – rock bottom or lifes work destroyed is pretty much on the list of “things to try and avoid” if there was such a list.
But the next time things feel like that they’re falling apart – stop and say to yourself – I’ll start all over again tomorrow.
Seneca LETTER CVII
“Things will get thrown at you and things will hit you. Life’s no soft affair. It’s a long road you’ve started on: you can’t but expect to have slips and knocks and falls, and get tired.”
Things will get thrown at you – some by random events – some with deliberate malice. As Seneca said – life is no soft affair – to complain about it is like complaining about getting splashed when at a public baths/swimming pool. It comes with the territory. Acceptance of this fact is a big step in how you frame your attitude to everything.
Modern version? – Shit happens. Expect it and accept it.
“But my nose is running!”
“What do you have hands for, idiot, if not to wipe it?”
“But how is it right that there be running noses in the first place?”
“Instead of thinking up protests, wouldn’t be easier just to wipe your nose?”
Epictetus – Discourses
It’s easy to sit and think “poor me – why me?”
Life isn’t fair and it never has been. History shows this.
Rather than spending energy and time and saying “why is this happening to me? – what did I do?” – wipe your nose – take the action. Don’t waste time on the problem – just focus on the solution.
If the current COVID pandemic has shown us anything it’s that we’re social creatures and “getting out” is important. I don’t just mean having one too many beers or cocktails and getting carried out of a bar. But outside. With people – with pets – with friends – with partners or by ourselves. All of this time cooped up inside has shown people just how important green spaces are or a nice place to sit in the garden or a local park or beach.
I’m not preaching. In fact I’m a really lazy person most of the time. I’m the great complainer when I go on hikes or long walks. I want to eat my lunch an hour in. But like most things in life – you only feel the benefit in hindsight. We’re meant to move. We’re meant to breathe fresh air. We’re meant to get out of our own little corner of the world and see that we’re part of a much bigger whole. It’s good for the soul. Because if you pay attention you’ll see you’re just one billions of different species that call this spiralling rock our home – you’re subject to the weather – the temperature – subject to yourself in a different way.
In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks. – John Muir
I hope that if and when things return to some kind of normality – we all don’t forget the importance of the simple things. Going “out” doesn’t need to cost a lot of money or require queues or hangovers – it’s just moving and paying attention to your surroundings. If you only get one shot at time on this planet – go out and explore.
I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in. – John Muir
First and foremost I’m not “anti-TV”. I watch it and I enjoy it. Although I do try to at least find shows that evoke something. Not just putting it on for background noise while I sit and do something else. Comedy – make me laugh. Thriller – hook me etc etc. TV has came a long way over the last couple of decades. There are a lot of great quality shows out there. But I thought I’d try and find 3 books that I’ve read in recent years that knock it out of the park while providing similar content to a TV show.
Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky – You could argue that this book is replicated in some fashion in many of the most popular TV shows today. In essence – a main character does something awful. They get pursued by the law and it explores this characters moral dilemmas and psychology. Tony Soprano? Marty Byrde? Walter White? – there’s something appealing about exploring good and evil. Particularly when characters aren’t just clear cut – black and white. The Wire is another show that explores the psychology of characters on both sides of the law and across multiple facets of a city. This made the show far more appealing because it didn’t just have “good guys and bad guys” – characters were real and three dimensional. It’s bizarre to think this book is from 1866 because it feels like a more modern novel. Not just dealing with events but what a character is going through – paranoia, anguish, guilt, anger. As a reader you go on this journey with Raskolnikov. One of my favourite books.
The Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas – Dumas wrote his books in serials – a bit like TV shows today. Which was the custom at the time. This explains the pace of the plot. It was apparently a sensation at the time with the whole of France wanting to know what was going to happen next. There’s a reason it’s been made into several movies over the year because it’s so screen worthy. Alas it’s a giant novel with so many threads and characters a movie run time won’t do it justice. Edmund Dantes, falsely imprisoned – escapes and plots his revenge. So well written with so much going on. Even minor characters get rich and full back stories that fill the story with a depth you don’t find very often. Everything is interwoven smartly – with twists, turns and clever plans.
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt – Edmund Morris – TR lived a life almost too unbelievable to be true. But it is. Whether you like him or not by the end (you’ll most probably like him) you can’t deny he lived a fascinating life and this is just part of it – there are another two books by Morris. Morris does that rare thing of combining facts with story. It helps that the subject lived such an interesting life no doubt, but I can’t imagine the amount of work that went into producing this. One of the best biographies you’ll ever read. Inspirational – exciting – sad – and you’ll learn a lot about American politics and history as he lived at a time of such transition. Politician – cowboy – soldier – young asthmatic – president – student. He lived a life.
The Second World War – Antony Beevor – There are a lot of WW2 documentaries out there. Many of them are very good. But this book is just – WOW. He has to summarise a lot of events because of the sheer amount of events and information it tries to cover. But you’ll finish this with a wide knowledge of the history of World War 2 and with a profound empathy and sadness. Beevor writes in such a unique way – combining the bigger picture without neglecting the events on individuals- soldiers and civilians on all sides. There are a lot of things in this book that I had never even heard of (some deliberately so…). Even as a British historian he doesn’t shy away from honest assessment and opinion. Pretty much everyone possible gets criticised at some point from politicians to army officers. But it gives it that authentic punch. He’s not trying to be friends with anyone. He’s telling the story of a global tragedy. I put this down when finished and felt immense gratitude for all that I’m fortunate to have.
Easy things are …well easy. The things that are bad for us usually come very easily. Zeno said that it’s “better to trip the feet than with the tongue” because once you say something it’s too late – you can’t unsay it. Life is like that sometimes. It’s easy to criticise someone. It’s harder to hold your tongue – think calmly and maybe have a bit of empathy. It’s easy to lie in on a morning – you switch your alarm off and roll over. It’s hard to hear your alarm and jump out of bed – even if it’s cold and dark and you’re tired. It’s easy to skip a workout and say “tomorrow” – it’s hard to be consistent and keep pushing yourself with a routine. Lots of things in life are easy. But usually the most rewarding things in life come from the hard choices. The road less travelled perhaps. Or the road less congested. Because anyone and everyone can do easy.
“So, what should each of us say to every trial we face? This is what I’ve trained for, for this is my discipline!” – Epictetus
Challenges at work or in our lives can sometimes make us want to throw in the towel and give up. Maybe we think about changing career or ending a relationship or abandoning a goal or pursuit. Because of course what’s the point in carrying on when you feel like you’re just doing enough to keep your head above water. Or maybe you’re putting in long hours at the office and feel like it’s all for nothing or you’re not getting results. But remember that if this is something you’ve put your time, your effort, your dedication into – this is your art. Trials and challenges in anything competitive actually improve you. They build your skills and your adaptability. Think about a boxer that always fights against others with poor records. Never challenging themselves. Often the best boxers, if managed and trained correctly, will test themselves incrementally against better and better opponents until they’re ready for a real test and a big fight. Because they need to test themselves against different styles, different challenges, different opponents – slowly facing tougher and tougher challenges. If they don’t do this – they’re unlikely to be able to come out on top against a top opponent. The other opponent is too experienced, too wise, too tested, too skilled. In turn then it benefits for someone to take some punches, go through the rounds, face some adversity and difficulty and hone their craft.
Think of yourself like a boxer. Honing your craft with every challenge. Learning. Testing. Probing. Getting better slowly but surely. So one day when a big challenge comes your way – you’re more than ready. You’re quietly confident. “I’ve got this” you say.