“In life our first job is this, to divide and distinguish things into two categories: externals I cannot control, but the choices I make with regard to them I do control. Where will I find good and bad? In me, in my choices.” (Epictetus)
The two phrases making up the title of this post are tattooed on the forearms of Ryan Holiday, who also wrote books with each of these phrases as the title. When I read these books, I internalized both ideas and come back to them almost daily.
I want to illustrate how these principles inform my thinking with two incidents that happened just in the past couple of days.
Renzo Gracie said, “My opponent is my teacher. Ego is the enemy.” I have been taking a class this week in which the material covered the installation of software. (In fact, it doesn’t really matter for the purpose of this example.) When it came time to test our skills and what we had learned, I wanted to do so with ease and speed. More accurately, my ego was looking for a win.
Because of this perhaps-subconscious motive, I hurried through the task and ended up having to go back to clean up my work. My opponent was not the task; it was my ego.
Similarly, we had a problem at work which has come up quite a few times. The particular person working on it chose to raise awareness of the issue and suggest that it be addressed. Again, the particulars are not what’s important. The important point is that the obstacle has become the way to something better.
When we are aware of where our ego is driving us, we can instead take the wheel with the better part of our mind to go to a location which serves us and others.
I can remember one day in high school football practice when a fight nearly broke out. Egos became involved and teammates became enemies that day. I was relating this to a friend later. She said, “I see that you take it seriously but not personally.” Indeed, when we separate ourselves from the issue at hand, we can see the best path.
There was also a time when a troubled work relationship caused me to take a career turn I would not have otherwise. The obstacle — this relationship — became the way to something much better.
Our task is twofold: To see things clearly by getting outside our ego; to let the obstacle in front of us lead us to a better resolution. Those things which once threatened us become the stepping stones to a better life.