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What Stands In The Way, Becomes The Way

What Stands In The Way, Becomes The Way

I was always a stubborn child.

When my parents told me, “you can’t”, I would ask, “why not?”

They said I couldn’t have everything I wanted. That there was no fast and sure way to make money. That I needed things other than my intellect to get by in the world.

I didn’t understand. And I didn’t believe.

Despite my glasses and messy dark hair, I was less Harry Potter and more Hermione Granger: believing everything I read in books, obsessed with the right ways to do things, and always willing to tell everybody else how to do it better!

After breezing through (and testing out of) grade school and high school, then jumping straight into a startup even before going to college, the world was my oyster. Life looked easy from there.

Boy was I in for a rough time!

Have you ever heard that saying, “What brought you here, won’t get you there?”

Real life is funny like that. We step out of our small pond and find ourselves surrounded with bigger fish. Or we find that despite all those people telling us, “you’re so good at that, you should start your own business”, not as many of them are willing to be your customers once you do… and that running a business is a lot harder than you thought it would be!

No matter your field, no matter your level of talent or ability, there always comes a point where simply trying harder is not an option, because no matter how hard you try, you find yourself going in circles, repeating the same mistakes, and spiraling down the drain.

When I started this blog in 2004, I’d just left another startup with a wad of cash burning a hole in my pocket, and an even bigger list of questions burning holes in my heart:

  • Can people really change? Can I?
  • Why are some people so successful, while others with more talent or better products fail so miserably?
  • How could I be so successful at helping other people (or businesses, or software projects) achieve their goals, and yet so thoroughly sh**ty at achieving my own?

I set out to answer those questions by writing about my experiences, both in my personal life and my software development work. And at the time, I had absolutely no idea I was going to turn into some kind self-help guru.

But life is funny like that.

It turns out that change and motivation and success and all that jazz, have an awful lot in common with software development. Not the programming bits, mind you. But the debugging bits. The hacking.

Turns out, you can debug your mind and your life in pretty much exactly the way you do a computer program. Hack in and rewire yourself, the way you’d crack root on your phone or gaming console.

You don’t actually have to be a hacker or coder to do it, but the resemblance is uncanny.

When I started this blog, I’d barely heard of Marcus Aurelius, except for knowing that he was this cool Roman Emperor dude who wrote some important stuff. But now, after 15 years of wrestling with the big questions, I just recently found out that he’d already written down the central theme of everything I’ve been studying, experimenting with, and learning since I started:

The impediment to action advances action.
What stands in the way becomes the way.

You can’t fix a bug in a program by trying to avoid it. In fact, you do the opposite! A programmer fixing a bug tries to repeat the bug, as much as possible, until they understand it. A hacker puts bad data into the system they’re trying to crack, intentionally provoking errors to find a way “in”.

And just as with everything else in life, when it comes to debugging, trying harder is not an action plan.

You can’t “try harder” to fix a bug, solve a problem, or have a good idea. All you can do is become more curious, and ask better questions. You have to treat your obstacles as information. As clues that tell you…

How Things Really Work

And as it happened, one of the reasons I was so good at helping other people, is because I was really good at “asking better questions”.

While one of the reasons my personal life was so sh**ty, was that I never asked myself any of those questions, before I started this blog.

When things got tough, I tried harder… or I gave up.

But neither of these approaches can work for us in the long run. Sooner or later, something comes along that’s harder than you… or can’t be run away from. (Hurricanes and crooked roofers were only the beginning!)

But I started asking better questions, and started getting better results.

I learned what makes us tick, and how to change it. Got excited, started a business, got successful…

And crashed again.

Now, this is the point where I’m required by law to say something like, “it was the best thing that ever happened to me,” or else they’ll revoke my guru license.

F**k that. It was awful. My own failures to reach my goals aside, I had to deal with health issues (mine and my wife’s) and the financial difficulties that go with them.

If there was any other way to learn what I’ve learned, to achieve what I achieved… I’d sign up in a heartbeat. If I could write down everything I learned and put it in a book and mail it to my past self… well,

I’d probably still f**k it up!

For the past five years, this blog has sat idle, mocking me. The software I’d used to run it had become non-viable, and I was so depressed I felt I had nothing much of worth to actually say.

Things were so bad, I started thinking maybe my parents were right. Maybe you can’t have what you want. Maybe life was hard and full of disappointment. Or maybe Kenny Rogers was right, and “the best that you could hope for / was to die in your sleep”.

The truth was, despite my skill at helping others, despite the things I learned about how to change – even myself – my personal philosophy was still rooted in optimism. A belief that surely anything must be possible, and that – much like Hermione Granger – I could learn to do anything if I just read the right books.

But that kind of philosophy doesn’t stand up to the real pains of life.

Building a new philosophy took time, and a lot of false starts. I had to learn for myself, the hard way, the meaning of some of Marcus Aurelius’ other words:

Objective judgment, now at this very moment.
Unselfish action, now at this very moment.
Willing acceptance—now at this very moment—of all external events.
That’s all you need.

These words are kind of cryptic, and they may not mean what you think they mean.

If I had read them before, I doubt I would have understood that “unselfish action” has nothing to do with who your actions benefit, but rather, that you are focused on the outcome of your actions, rather than on how they reflect upon yourself.

And I doubt I would have understood that “objective judgment” doesn’t mean, “use an outside perspective to find better ways to criticize yourself”!

Or that “willing acceptance” wasn’t just another way to phrase my father’s constant refrain that I would “just have to learn to live with being disappointed”.

And I certainly wouldn’t have guessed that all three sentences are just different ways of saying the same thing:

All results are feedback.

All results are information. Clues. Hints. A treasure map to our goals, or at least the next level in our personal game. And we can only decipher them by being willing to follow the feedback we are given, weighing it without regard to what we might think it might say about us as a person, or that it might present us with unpleasant facts about the nature of the world around us.

But if you can find yourself curious instead of giving up…

And if you’re willing to follow where the clues lead, instead of trying harder and harder to make things go the way you want them to…

You will find yourself playing the game on a whole new level.

15 years ago, I could follow the clues in other people’s goals, because I wasn’t attached to the outcome.

And then I learned to follow the clues in my mind, to become less attached to my own goals, yet at the same time more motivated to act on them.

And then finally, I had to learn to follow the clues left by life, that told me how I needed to change in areas I didn’t really want to…

But would make me happier, more at peace, and more in love with life than I ever dared dream possible.

So here I am, starting up the blog again. With new things to say, and do, and maybe even sell.

I’ve given it a fifteenth-anniversary facelift, and a new catchphrase to boot, straight out of Marcus Aurelius’s playbook:

What Stands In The Way, Becomes The Way

Because if you want to level up your life, transcend your limitations, and maybe even stare death in the eye without blinking, you would do well to remember this:

Despite what society tells us, it is not about keeping our “eyes on the prize”. Nor is it really true that obstacles are just, “those frightful things we see when we take our eyes off the goal”. Nor can we truly say that our problems are “opportunities”… even though we can make opportunities from them.

No, the real truth about our problems – whether in business, software development, or life itself – is that they are clues. Clues that tell us what we need to change.

In our actions, in our plans, or in our minds and hearts.

Our problems are a messenger, that tell us that what we’re doing isn’t working, and that trying harder won’t help.

They tell us that our ideas of the way things ought to be, don’t match with how they really are. That the things we think we know are wrong. That the things we want to pretend we have or can get were never really real, and the things we want to believe, we may need to let go of.

And that, although we are always free to argue with reality… we will only lose (as Byron Katie puts it), “100% of the time”.

I won’t lie: letting go of our arguments, giving up on our stubborness… it’s hard nearly every single time. Sometimes it even feels like dying, or like giving up on everything you ever wanted or held dear.

And yet…

On the other side, the moment you truly act with “willing acceptance”, “objective judgment”, or “un[self-conscious] action”…

Not as a trick or a hack, but for real

Your life is transformed.

Maybe only in one small way, some tiny area. But it’s changed.

And it’s real. And it’s different.

Because you’re different.

And then you wonder what all the fuss was about, because you can’t even remember why you were so stubbornly insistent that life had to be the way you thought, or else it just wasn’t right.

Yeah, yeah… I know: that’s all very inspiring and all, but how, exactly, do you do that?

Well… that’s why I’m writing new articles again. 😉

So stay tuned! (And if you haven’t already, follow on Twitter or Facebook, or better yet: use the RSS feed or sign up for email notifications, so you’re not as dependent on Big Social Media to decide what you do and don’t hear about.)

–PJ

P.S. Welcome back to dirt Simple! Although the facelift is basically done, some reorganization and updates are still in progress. There may still be some broken links for a little while, and some things might take a little while to come back. But almost everything from the old site is still here, and accessible via the same URLs as before.

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Cover photo of "A Minute To Unlimit You" by PJ Eby
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